Fighting Hunger in the U.S.

By ·May 10, 2021
Northwestern University

The Issue:

Nearly 12 million Americans experienced hunger in 2019, at a time when the country had record-low levels of unemployment. Not surprisingly, reported rates of hunger climbed dramatically as the economy contracted in the year after the pandemic began. Although reported rates have come down since reaching a peak in December of 2020, hunger is likely to remain an issue for millions of Americans even as the economy recovers. There is evidence that existing government programs, as well as the expansions and enhancements of them put in place during the crisis, can move the needle on hunger. A few modest policy changes could further improve their effectiveness and reach.

Food insecurity and hunger remain elevated for years after an economic downturn. Modest changes could improve existing government programs.

The Facts:

  • The pandemic clearly increased hunger rates among American households. During COVID-19, I estimate that 68.0 million Americans (20 percent of the population) were food insecure, meaning they did not have consistent, dependable access to enough food to live an active, healthy lifestyle. 35.9 million lived in households in which they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week — a more severe level of food insecurity. Rates of hunger have been especially high among households with children and among children themselves. While the statistics collected during the pandemic are not strictly comparable to the regular annual numbers, looking at the latest annual figures prior to the pandemic gives a sense of the magnitude of the increase. In 2019, 35.2 million people (11 percent of the population) were food insecure. Of those, 11.8 million (4 percent of the population) had "very low food security" as categorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means that one or more household members experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns at times because of limited money and other resources for obtaining food (see here). 
  • Food insecurity and hunger remain elevated for years following an economic downturn reflecting, in part, the fact that an economic recovery takes longer to reach more disadvantaged households. Unemployment rates for groups that tend to have higher rates of hunger (e.g. those with low levels of education) generally increase more during recessions and take longer to recover. Annual rates of hunger overall and among households with children increased by 40 percent at the onset of the Great Recession and remained elevated for at least seven years (see chart). Rates of the broader measure of food insecurity follow the same pattern. In general, households with children have tended to experience higher rates of food hardship than households overall across the business cycle. In contrast, changes in food hardship among households with elderly members are less tied to the economy and tend to experience somewhat lower rates than households overall. However, 3 percent of elderly households reported experiencing hunger over the last decade.
  • The centerpiece for federal efforts to address hunger and food security in the U.S. is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, which provides resources to eligible families to purchase food to be prepared and consumed at home. SNAP supplements the cash resources that a family has to purchase food, so that between SNAP and their other income, a family should be able to afford a sufficient, healthy diet. Average monthly benefits for a family of 3 in 2019 (before the pandemic) amounted to $365 per household— which is about $4 per person per day. SNAP is designed to work through the normal channels of trade like grocery stores and supermarkets. As more households become eligible for the program — for example, due to job loss — they can be quickly enrolled, with total program spending automatically increasing along with need, and then reducing again as the economy recovers. SNAP serves a diverse caseload. About 2 in 5 households on SNAP have children at home; these families tend to be employed, but do not make enough to afford the food they need on their own. A lot of these families cycle on and off of SNAP when their jobs or hours change. Another 2 in 5 have elderly or disabled members and generally participate for longer periods of time because their incomes tend to be stable but too low to afford the food they need. The remaining households tend to be very poor, many with incomes below half the poverty threshold or even no cash income at all. Many of these have just a single adult in the household and face many challenges and barriers that make finding stable employment difficult. In many of these cases, SNAP is the only program available to them.
  • SNAP has measurable short- and long-term benefits for recipient families as well as for society at large. Receipt of SNAP benefits kept 2.5 million people out of poverty in 2019, including 1 million children and a quarter of a million elderly people. Beyond ensuring recipients preserve their ability to buy food during downturns, SNAP aids the wider economy by providing an effective economic stimulus in recessions. The USDA estimates that every dollar spent in new SNAP benefits generates more than one dollar of economic activity and one study found that Congress’ authorization of a temporary SNAP increase during the Great Recession had a larger fiscal stimulus impact than any other potential spending increase or tax-cut policy. Moreover, there is evidence that providing individuals with supplemental nutrition, particularly at younger ages, provides long-term benefits. Recent research that I coauthored with Hilary Hoynes and Doug Almond, for instance, found that those who had access to SNAP benefits as children were more likely to graduate from high school and grew up to be healthier; women in particular were more likely to become economically successful due to childhood access to SNAP.
  • Other policies that play crucial supporting roles are school meals, the Pandemic and Summer EBT programs, summer feeding programs, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). WIC does an exemplary job ensuring that infants have adequate access to the foods and breast milk or infant formula they require. For school-age children, free or reduced price school lunches and breakfasts play an important role, a fact that was underscored during COVID-19 when kids lost access to these meals. Congress enacted the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides food benefits similar to SNAP to students who lost access to school meals due to school closures. These payments reduced child hunger in the weeks after they were received by 30 percent. The Biden Administration announced that these payments would continue through the summer of 2021. Making this program permanent could make a big dent against hunger in kids: An evaluation of a pilot program that gave families $60 per month in benefits per eligible child during the summer months to offset the loss of school meals found that those children experienced less hunger and food insecurity, and improved their diets. 
  • Existing programs could be modified to provide greater coverage against hunger. Not all who qualify for benefits end up accessing SNAP or WIC. SNAP participation rates are especially low among the elderly. One way to address this would be to expand nationwide the Elderly Simplified Assistance Demonstration Project, which streamlines the application and certification process for some households with elderly and disabled members. In the case of WIC, participation rates drop substantially as children age; while 84 percent of eligible infants participate in WIC, the share drops to 33 percent by age 4. Since all pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and toddlers on SNAP are automatically eligible for WIC, it would be straightforward to measure and establish performance metrics for cross-enrollment of eligible SNAP participants into WIC, in order to encourage states to find ways to increase participation rates in WIC. Furthermore, fear and confusion around proposed changes to the “public charge” rule might have reduced participation rates among immigrants who are eligible for these programs. 
  • SNAP benefits could be better aligned with contemporary families’ needs. Before COVID-19, there was wide recognition that the foundation used to calculate SNAP benefits, the Thrifty Food Plan, was out-of-date. High-quality prepared and convenience foods — pre-washed bagged salads, cleaned baby carrots, rotisserie chickens, etc.—have helped reduce the time it takes to prepare meals, and has helped drive a shift in time use (especially among women) away from food preparation and towards other productive activities, such as nurturing children and paid employment. SNAP benefits, however, are based on an increasingly outdated formula that assumes that household recipients can allocate an unlimited amount of time to prepare meals from scratch. Evidence suggests that even a modest, $30-per-month increase in SNAP benefits would increase participants’ consumption of nutritious foods such as vegetables and healthy proteins, while reducing food insecurity and fast-food consumption.

What this Means:

Combating hunger and enhancing economic security are greatly assisted by sustained, broad-based economic growth. But, as the experience of the Great Recession showed, hunger can linger even as the economy recovers. We can dramatically reduce, and even eliminate, hunger by better using the tools we have already developed. We can enhance SNAP by aligning its benefits with what it realistically takes to purchase and eat a healthy, basic diet, and by increasing the participation of eligible populations. Further, we can improve participation in other nutrition programs like school meals and WIC. Broader safety net programs that help combat poverty also reduce hunger. The recent expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit, and Summer EBT will also reduce hunger; making these expansions permanent will make great strides. Food banks and other charities help meet emergency needs, and for some people facing hunger—such as those with incomes that place them out of the range of most food support programs but have fallen on hard times—are the only source of help. Bolstered by stronger income and nutrition support programs, food banks and the nonprofit sector will be made even more effective in filling remaining gaps and addressing some of the root causes of hunger.


Business Cycles / Coronavirus / SNAP / Social Safety Net
Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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