WASHINGTON – With more than 1 in 10 households reporting they don’t have enough to eat, the Biden government is accelerating a major hunger relief campaign that will temporarily increase aid by tens of billions of dollars and create the conditions for what officials see it as permanent extensions of aid.
Efforts to bring more food aid to more people are remarkable for both the scale of their ambitions and the diversity of their legislative and administrative policies. The campaign raised food stamps by more than $ 1 billion a month, gave needy children $ 1 a day for snacks, expanded a allowance for pregnant women and children, and approved the largest summer child feeding program in history .
“We have not seen an expansion of food aid on this scale since the inception of the modern grocery stamp program in 1977,” said James P. Ziliak, University of Kentucky economist who studies nutrition programs. “It’s a profound change.”
As dollars and decisions flow from the Department of Agriculture, the tone was set by President Biden, who edited an executive order in January they told aid workers to “tackle the growing hunger crisis” and later complained about the car lines “going half a mile each time just to get a box of food”.
The move reflects an extraordinary shift in poverty politics – paradoxically driven by both the spread of hardship to more working-class and white families and the growing recognition of the disproportionate toll of poverty on minorities. Given the particularly high levels of hunger in black and Latin American households, which is vital to the Coalition of Democrats, the government is directing its efforts not just in response to pandemic needs but as part of a campaign for racial justice.
“This crisis has shown how fragile the economies of many Americans are and how unfair it is who is struggling the most,” said Stacy Dean, who leads efforts as a senior official in the Department of Agriculture’s hunger attorney after a distinguished career as an anti-civil servant. “It’s an incredibly painful picture, and even more so with color communities.”
Like other White House measures – including a temporary child benefit to reduce child poverty almost in half Efforts to reduce hunger reflect a renewed willingness on the part of Democrats to identify themselves as poverty fighters who they once feared would alienate the middle class.
To understand what the new guidelines mean at the kitchen table, consider the experience of Dakota Kirby, 29, a single mother in Indianapolis who lost her job caring for an elderly woman at the beginning of the pandemic. After Ms. Kirby recently started work, she assumed she could not get unemployment benefits and did not apply.
As a result, she had to rely on food aid and loads of child support to support a six-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.
“It got a little rough there,” Ms. Kirby said, adding that she is reluctant to complain because “there are families who are far worse off.”
Even when she budgeted carefully, her $ 509 monthly grocery stamps ran out in three weeks. She cut her portions and skipped meals so the children could eat. She got help from a grocery bank until her children rebelled against butter beans and tuna. She pawned her television but still fell short at the till.
“It was humiliating,” she said, throwing frozen pizzas in line while strangers watched. “I’ve never had a problem like this. It makes you really sad and angry as a mother. Especially when it’s not your own fault.”
Ms. Kirby recently received a 15 percent increase in food stamps commissioned by Congress in December, which was so unexpected that she refused to give them out for fear of getting into trouble.
In addition, both children are now qualifying for a program called Pandemic-EBT, which offers electronic grocery vouchers to replace meals lost during school closings. (So far, only her older child was qualified.) And she receives more money for products under the special nutritional supplement program for women, infants and children (WIC).
The combined monthly aid from the three programs will increase from $ 665 to $ 930. In other words, each person in the home is now getting $ 10 a day to eat, up 40 percent.
“That’s a big old leap!” she said, surprised at the news. “It will help a lot.”
Biden’s efforts represent a marked shift from the Trump administration’s philosophy of restricting food stamp eligibility and expanding labor rules.
So far, the expansion of aid has only caused modest conservative complaints. But what supporters call “food aid”, critics often call “welfare”. Previous expansions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the food stamp program is officially known, brought counterattacks from conservatives who argued that the program undermines work and marriage.
Angela Rachidi of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said the Biden administration did so overestimated the need for additional support and underestimated the risks. She noted that the government had spent large sums on expanding other programs and that at the start of the pandemic, Congress significantly increased the SNAP benefits for many families. (In addition to the increase in SNAP, Ms. Kirby received stimulus payments of $ 8,200 and receives child benefit of $ 6,600.)
Ms. Rachidi wrote strict welfare rules for Pre-pandemic poverty reduction – Child poverty fell to a record low – and warned that a permanent increase in aid would jeopardize this progress.
“This has long been on the agenda of Democrats and left-wing interest groups. They are expanding programs that hinder work and encourage addiction,” she said. “There is a clear intention to make these changes permanent and I think a lot of Republicans have slept behind the wheel.”
Scenes of overcrowded food banks have provided some of the most compelling images of the pandemic, making hunger problems a rare spotlight. One recently Survey by the Census Bureau In the previous week alone, 8.4 percent of adults said that their households “sometimes” did not have enough to eat, and 2.3 percent said that they did so “often”. That equates to 23 million hungry adults and millions of children.
Emergency food requests have become so frequent at the John Boner Neighborhood Center in Indianapolis that the agency has started stocking boxes of groceries.
“We have people who have never needed help before, and we have the population who used to need it but need more now,” said Carla James, a staff member.
Interviews with residents of the neighborhood suggest that the expansion of aid has done a lot in reducing the hardship, but its reach varies greatly from household to household.
While Ms. Kirby was not receiving unemployment benefits, Sonya Radford quickly received unemployment benefits that more than made up for the income she lost after quitting her job as a nursing assistant, and she enrolled with SNAP. This combination enabled her to feed her three children better than before the pandemic, when she often relied on pantries.
“We’re pretty good with the benefits,” she said.
Anna Chaney quit her job as a Door Dash driver to watch her daughter and two grandchildren when their schools closed. She has seen both hardship and a lot since then. For seven months, survival on SNAP was so difficult that she cut portions and thinned the chicken soup. Then she suddenly started receiving overdue unemployment benefits of $ 16,000. She filled the freezer with meat and took the family on vacation.
“I wish lawmakers had realized, before our pandemic, that poor people need more,” she said. “It took more of the middle class and some of the upper class to figure out that they needed help so people could act. If I tell Indiana lawmakers, “Hey guys, $ 75 isn’t enough to eat for a week,” it’ll be a tough sell. But when the whole world is suffering, that’s a different situation. “
The Biden government shares the hope that evidence of the value of the sometimes temporary aid enhancements will lead to permanent changes. “We can build a stronger, longer-lasting safety net,” said Ms. Dean.
At an anti-hunger conference last month, Agriculture Minister Tom Vilsack presented a kaleidoscope of the latest initiatives. These include new subsidies for food banks, an outreach program in WIC, food aid for homeless young adults, grants for Puerto Rico and the Mariana Islands, and efforts to provide more nutritious food.
Perhaps the most important change since the pandemic began involves the temporary growth in SNAP benefits, which hit roughly one in eight Americans and one in four children.
The Biden Administration settled legal challenges last week, which will increase the odds beyond the Democrats who were pushed through Congress twice last year. A federal judge ruled last fall that the Trump administration wrongly denied the poorest 40 percent of households the initial surge. With the agreement to increase these benefits, Biden administration officials will expand assistance by more than $ 1 billion per month.
With the new increase, the average benefit will have temporarily increased by around three quarters during the crisis.
Pandemic-EBT, the substitute for school meals, is a large temporary program that can lead to permanent change. Childhood hunger routinely rises when schools fail, and nutrition advocates have long called for an extensive summer feeding program. By extending the pandemic EBT over the summer, Congress is essentially running a pilot program costing around $ 6 billion, and Biden officials have expressed an interest in making it permanent.
Less immediate, but possibly of great concern, is a process the Biden team began with to review the adequacy of the SNAP benefits in normal times. The benefits are based on a budget called the Thrifty Food Plan, which experts have long claimed to underestimate the cost of feeding a family. Elaine Waxman from the Urban Institute and two colleagues found The benefits would have to increase by 27 percent (or $ 15 billion a year before the crisis) to meet minimal needs.
In 2018, Congress, then under Republican control, authorized the Department of Agriculture to reassess the cost of healthy eating, and Mr Biden’s order urged officials to accelerate the work. Pending an internal study, officials said they expect benefits to increase significantly.
“The Thrifty Food Plan is just too frugal,” Ms. Dean said recently.
At the recent conference, Mr Vilsack spoke about these efforts in the context of a fight for racial justice. As a former Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama, he called himself an “elderly white man” and added, “I have never had the experience of being black.” But he said an equity committee in the department would reassess the guidelines to ensure racial justice.
Reassured by a reporter that her improvement in performance hadn’t been a mistake, Ms. Kirby, the Indianapolis mother, recently returned to the grocery store where her lack of money had led to a humiliation at the checkout.
This time she brought her children with her without fear that they would ask for food that she couldn’t afford. She bought the frozen pizzas that she had to throw away on her previous visit and “some expensive things like meat sauce for spaghetti”.
“I don’t even know how to explain,” she referred to her relieved worries. “It’s like a physical relief. I just knew everything would be fine.”