Food insecurity for families with children hit a record low last year, due in part to an expanded government safety net during the covid pandemic that included universal school meals and the Child Tax Credit, the Department of Agriculture reports. But that great news is undercut by the fact that those programs are ending, if they haven’t already.
What comes next is unclear, although the White House is tackling questions about hunger at its food inequality conference on Wednesday, the first since the Nixon administration.
Grid looked at the data behind child hunger and talked to experts about what works and what the U.S. should do next.
Families with kids benefited from government relief
In the early days of the pandemic, food insecurity in households with children skyrocketed. By June 2020, about 16 percent of households with children — the highest proportion on record — reported that their children didn’t have enough to eat over the last week. Black and Hispanic children experienced food insecurity at even higher rates, according to research from the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative from the Brookings Institution.
That rise in demand for food aid translated into an expanded and simplified government safety net, such as extending the Child Tax Credit to more families, that had been previously hindered by regulations and red tape.
By 2021, the percentage of households with children who were food insecure went down from 16.1 percent in 2020 to 12.8 percent in 2021.
But some hungry Americans got less relief from covid aid programs. Government assistance efforts seemed to benefit families with kids most, according to the data. By contrast, women and the elderly who lived alone saw rates of food insecurity increase by 2.2 and 1.2 percentage points, respectively, from 2020 to 2021.
But even within households that include children, individual family members may be impacted differently by food insecurity. Adults often bear the brunt of the adverse impacts.
Certain parts of programs were more effective
Poonam Gupta, a research analyst for the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, said some programs were effective at targeting child hunger, according to existing data.
Research from the Hamilton Project shows that the expansion of SNAP benefits — previously known as food stamps — and the introduction of the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, which gave families with children funds equivalent to the value of school meals, for example, were efforts that successfully led to decreased food insecurity among children.
During the 2020 school year, P-EBT decreased very low food security among children in SNAP households by 17 percent and food insufficiency by 28 percent, the Hamilton Project said. Other initiatives experts say have proved to work:
The expanded Child Tax Credit program: It offered the majority of families with kids monthly cash payments — up to $300 per month for each child under the age of 6 and up to $250 per month for each child between the ages of 7 and 17 — and was not based on employment status as it had been previously.
“This program is basically cutting food hardship by around a fifth among families of children, with particularly strong reduction effects for low-income families,” said Zachary Parolin, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, who recently co-authored a working paper on the topic.
Free universal school meals: Schools were authorized to provide school meals for children in schools. In the past, Gupta added, low-income families had to provide eligibility paperwork to qualify; they didn’t have to do when this program started, which means all children had access, regardless of income.
The program also improved health and academic performance, Gupta said.
The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program (P-EBT): It provided families with children funds on EBT cards, equivalent to the value of school meals when school is in session. One study from the Hamilton Project found that in the first week after the P-EBT benefits were distributed in 2020, the share of children not getting enough food decreased by 8 percentage points. It will last through the public health emergency and be available through next summer.
The expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — “often the first line of defense for families,” said Gupta — saw a 15 percent increase in the maximum benefit between January and June 2021, before the expansion was extended through September 2021.
There were also other factors at play in reducing child hunger, Health Affairs reported in an article, beyond temporary policy measures. Families with children said they used charitable food, such as through food banks (which received greater investment), at a rate 50 percent higher than those without children in 2021. Black and Hispanic families with children particularly benefited.
With many of these programs ending, child hunger rates are on the rise. So what programs are worth keeping?
The share of families with children reporting food insecurity ticked upward by roughly 6.6 percentage points between April 2021 and June 2022, according to the Urban Institute’s quarterly Health Reform Monitoring Survey. This fact that the rise is coinciding with a decrease in the programs out there to help families is hard to ignore, say experts.
“Rollbacks in key programs probably contributed to this increase,” said Gupta. “This all points to hard times to come for families without any kind of sustained investment.”
That said, in part that reversal can be attributed to inflation — prices are rising at the fastest rate in the last four decades.
So, what’s the best path for the federal government to take? Parolin’s research led him to two main conclusions about what policy steps would be most effective. The first is not making parent/guardian employment status a requirement for aid.
“Providing regular, timely assistance to families of children that’s not conditional on employment seems to be pretty beneficial for their well-being,” he said.
Second, how payments are dispersed matters. Monthly payments for families are more likely to reduce food insecurity, as opposed to lump sums (like the one distributed in spring), which are more likely to reduce housing hardship. A recent working paper from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, which Parolin co-authored, found that families were more likely to spend the Child Tax Credit’s monthly payments on food, reducing food insufficiency among families with children by at least 2.4 percentage points, the authors wrote.
“2022 has been a very tumultuous year for families, just because of inflation leading to increased financial pressures,” said Gupta. “We need to build on the successes of the past year — we learned a lot from the innovations, such as the extended Child Tax Credit.”
“Continuing key investments in the social safety net based on the evidence that we’ve already built to ensure families are supported is really important,” she said.
What are the expected outcomes from the White House hunger conference?
Before the start of the White House summit on hunger on Wednesday, the administration released a statement laying out their plan for “ending hunger and reducing diet-related disease by 2030.” Part of that plan includes an $8 billion commitment to private- and public-sector organizations to address these disparities.
Coming out of the conference, Gupta said, “We’re hopeful that these pandemic-era innovations can be incorporated into permanent programs that can curb food insecurity moving forward.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.