A stark measure of the economic hardship created by the coronavirus pandemic on Americans is the large number of families reporting that sometimes or often they do not have enough to eat.

This is happening despite a substantial expansion of many existing federal supports and the creation of new programs to provide economic assistance for low-income families. Available real-time data indicate that there is tremendous unmet need and that households with children report the highest rates of not having enough to eat.

Families receive aid from Feed the Children in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The facts
  • Even during a strong economy, there are several million American households who report facing food hardship. In 2019, 3.7% of respondents reported that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture collects a detailed survey on households’ experiences with food access, including asking a series of questions designed to measure a household’s “food security status” on an annual basis. Respondents are first asked to choose which statement best describes the food eaten in their homes in the past year: enough of the kinds of foods we want to eat; enough, but not always, the kinds of food we want; sometimes not enough to eat; or often not enough to eat. In 2019, prior to COVID-19 and in the midst of a strong economy with a record streak of job growth and low unemployment rates, about 9 million American adults reported that members of their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. 

  • But, during COVID-19, between 10% and 12% of Americans report that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week. In the most recent Census Pulse survey, collected Oct. 28-Nov. 9, nearly 26 million adults reported that their household didn’t have enough to eat. Typically, measures of food hardship are closely correlated with the economy, so high rates are not entirely surprising given the state of the economy. The coronavirus pandemic and the measures to address the public health emergency led to a rapid and an unprecedented spike in unemployment, as well as hourly reductions for many workers. School and childcare closures, where many children typically receive free or subsidized meals, further added to the pressure on families’ food budgets. In addition, food prices increased sharply at the start of the pandemic, leading to a reduction in the purchasing power of families’ limited income. 

  • Across the board, families with children have been particularly hard hit (see chart, below). Between 7 million and 11 million children live in a household where they didn’t eat enough in the past seven days. More than four in 10 children live in households that report they are struggling to pay for basic needs like rent and food. During the COVID-19 recession, households with children have been more likely to suffer job and income losses relative to households without children, contributing to a greater need to dig into savings, a higher rate of missed rent and debt payments, and food hardship for households with children, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Another study finds that one in five children in the United States experienced the job loss of an adult in their household between February and April 2020, and one in 12 experienced the job loss of all adult earners in their household, including one in seven children living with single parents. (See here.) 

  • The lack of adequate food has been extremely widespread. In 44 states and Washington, D.C., more than one in 10 adults with children report not having enough to eat. (See map.) While those with lower incomes are more likely to report not having enough to eat, one in four of those reporting not enough to eat had usual incomes (before COVID) above $50,000 per year. At about 1 in 5, the shares without enough to eat during COVID are disproportionately high among Black and Hispanic respondents (groups that have experienced larger employment declines). Women have been more likely to lose their jobs during this recession and are also disproportionately impacted by hunger, making up 54% of those reporting not having enough to eat (and 58% of seniors who report not having enough to eat.)

  • Difficulties accessing food that are less severe than those faced by families who report not having enough to eat extend more broadly. The measure of “sometimes or often not enough to eat” is a narrower and more severe measure than the concept of “food insecurity” that is also tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A broader concept of food insecurity measures whether a family has enough money to purchase the foods they need to live an active, healthy lifestyle. While food insecurity has not been measured directly during COVID-19, using available data we can estimate that food insecurity is around 22% for adults overall, and 29% for those with children. To put these numbers in context, 10.5% of households overall and 13.6% of those with children were food insecure in 2019. (Though these numbers help to illustrate the extent to which food hardship is very elevated during the pandemic, it is important to note that the rates before and during COVID are not directly comparable due to differences in the manner in which the surveys were collected).

  • The situation would have been much worse were it not for government programs already in place, extraordinary emergency measures passed by Congress at the beginning of the pandemic, and a surge in aid from food banks and other organizations. The Families First Coronavirus Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, included important provisions to respond to the historic job losses. First, there were substantial temporary expansions to unemployment insurance: a $600-per-week universal supplement, a 13-week extension of eligibility, and expanded eligibility for self-employed and gig economy workers and those without sufficient earnings for normal unemployment benefits. Second, a one-time payment of $1,200 per adult ($2,400 for a married couple) plus $500 per dependent child under 17 was implemented (with phase outs for high-income families). Third, all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments were raised to the maximum benefit level — averaging a $165 increase in monthly benefits for households receiving increases. Fourth, a new program (Pandemic EBT) was launched to provide direct payments to the millions of families whose children lost access to free and reduced-price meals while their schools were closed. (See here for greater detail of the programs and their impact.) 

  • Why did hunger spike in spite of the existing and emergency policies adopted to address it? In a recent paper coauthored with Marianne Bitler and Hilary Hoynes, we concluded that delays in initial response payments, the magnitude of the economic shock and gaps in coverage help to explain the extent of economic hardship in the midst of a large policy response. With overwhelmed and outdated state unemployment systems, relief payments especially to low-income families came with a substantial delay — and could not be weathered without hardship (or emergency charity aid) for those who lacked savings or access to credit. Outside of the unemployment insurance system, the magnitude of payments made to low-income families was relatively modest — averaging $30 to $40 per week — and may not have been sufficient to offset increased need. Moreover, some who were hit by the economic shock had no recourse from existing safety net programs (for instance workers who lost hours but not their jobs were not able to get unemployment insurance in most states). Importantly, despite expansions intended to make unemployment insurance (UI) coverage more universal than it has traditionally been, the limited real-time data suggest that there are still many unemployed workers who are not receiving UI.

What it means

Lack of adequate food is harmful to all people and can be especially harmful to children because of potential lasting impacts on their development. As my colleagues and I have argued elsewhere, what we now know about the long-term impacts of deprivation in childhood implies that policy should especially protect children from hardships during economic downturns.

Furthermore, the surge in COVID cases, delayed payments in the Pandemic EBT program for the 2020-21 school year, and the looming expiration of enhanced UI benefits suggest that without further Congressional action, measures of hardship will remain elevated or even increase.

Diane Schanzenbach is a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter @dwschanz.

This article was published with the permission of Econofact.

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