The Pandemic Drop In Food Insecurity Among Families With Children
In 2020 at the onset of the COVID pandemic, federal, state, and local governments responded with historic and unprecedented levels of support to protect American families from the dual blow of a health crisis and massive employment loss. The impact of this investment was equally unprecedented and is now becoming apparent in official statistics. Child poverty and the share households with children facing food insecurity fell to all-time lows in 2021. Looking at the success of the policies enacted — and where they fell short — provides lessons for the effectiveness of social investments in reducing food insecurity and child poverty going forward. This is especially important at a time when the positive trends are showing signs of reversal with pandemic aid ending and the highest rate of inflation in decades.
Looking at the success of the policies — and where they fell short — is especially important when the positive trends are reversing with pandemic aid ending and the highest inflation in decades.
- In 2021, the share of households with children experiencing food insecurity reached the lowest share on record since the measure started in 1998. An estimated 12.5 percent of households with children lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members in 2021. That share was statistically significantly lower than the reported rate of 14.8 percent in 2020 and down substantially from a high of 21.3 percent in 2009. It is worth noting that food security is measured at the household level, and not all children in food-insecure households directly experienced the household’s food insecurity.
- The share of households with children experiencing food insecurity fell by about a sixth across White, Black and Hispanic households with children in 2021. Because of higher initial rates of food insecurity, the percentage point drops were higher among Black and Hispanic households with children. Food insecurity in households with children dropped by 4.6 percentage points among Blacks and 3.8 percentage points among Hispanics, compared with a 1.8 percentage point drop among Whites in 2021 (see chart). Rates of food insecurity differ across racial and ethnic groups, and the percentage decline was similar — approximately 17 percent — across groups. In good times and bad, food insecurity rates in households with children average about twice as high in Hispanic families compared with White families, and average 125 percent higher in Black families compared with Whites.
- In spite of this, the share of households with children experiencing the most severe form of food insecurity did not budge. Very low food security is a more severe measure indicating that because of lack of resources, one or more household members experienced reduced food intake or disrupted eating patterns. About 3.4 percent of households with children experienced very low food security in 2021, a rate that was statistically unchanged from 2020.
- The strong decline in food insecurity for households with children has been somewhat obscured by opposing trends among childless households. Despite the strong decline among households with children, the overall rate of households’ food insecurity was statistically unchanged in 2021 compared with 2020. This happened because childless adults experienced a statistically significant increase in food insecurity that was particularly pronounced among the elderly living alone and women living alone. Usually the share of people living in food insecure households moves in tandem with the share of households that are food insecure. But in both 2020 and 2021, trends in food insecurity rates have differed in a manner that households with and without children have moved in opposite directions. Since the number of people per household is larger in households with children, the share of individuals living in food insecure households is also down. In 2021, 10.4 percent of people live in food insecure households, down from 11.8 percent in 2020 and the lowest share on record.
- Relief payments during 2021 helped drive down food insecurity in households with children. In particular, the expanded Child Tax Credit that was in place from July-December 2021 paid benefits to families with children—$250 per month per child aged 6-17 and $300 per month per child age 5 or younger. These payments were estimated to have reduced food insufficiency by 25 percent. Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) payments provided resources for school meals missed due to school closures, as well as benefits over the summer. P-EBT payments also substantially reduced food insufficiency. A combination of temporary and permanent increases to the benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, also played an important role in reducing food insecurity for families with children in 2021. In response to the pandemic, Congress temporarily raised SNAP benefits by 15% through September 30, 2021, and boosted every household to the maximum benefit for their household size. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased benefits for all households by at least $95 in April 2021 (see here). These pandemic benefits were temporary. But, independently of COVID, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been directed by Congress in 2018 to re-evaluate the Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates the cost of a healthy diet and is used to determine SNAP benefits. As a result of the update to the Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP benefit amounts have been permanently adjusted as of October 1, 2021, to provide 40-cents more per person, per meal.
- The poverty rate, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) that accounts for the impact of relief payments and other factors, dropped even more than did food insecurity. The SPM child poverty rate fell by nearly 50 percent to an all-time low of 5.2 percent in 2021. One explanation for the differences in the magnitude of the decline is that many households experiencing food insecurity have incomes above the poverty threshold. More than one-quarter of households experiencing food insecurity in 2021 had incomes above 185 percent of the poverty threshold.
- Things may be getting worse since the 2021 food insecurity rates were collected. Families have been receiving fewer income supports, most notably the refundable CTC ended, as did other enhancements to SNAP. Food prices have climbed, experiencing their largest increase in decades. According to Census Household Pulse data, which has been collecting real-time information on food hardship during the pandemic, rates of food insufficiency have been climbing during 2022. Similarly, an analysis by the Urban Institute of a nationally representative survey found that 23.9 percent of adults living with children under 19 reported that their household was food insecure in June 2022, which was a statistically significant increase from 2021 and similar to the rates reported in spring 2020.
What this Means:
At the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, President Biden pledged to end hunger by the year 2030. In particular, he set forth the goal of cutting food insecurity in half and driving down the rate of very low food security to less than one percent. This goal is ambitious but, I believe, achievable. The programs enacted to support families during the pandemic had a measurable impact on reducing food insecurity in the midst of a dramatic economic downturn, providing evidence of the effectiveness of government supports for reaching these goals. However, the experience from the pandemic shows that reducing the share of families experiencing the most severe forms of food insecurity remains a formidable challenge. Moreover, the fact that child poverty dropped to a far greater extent than the share of households with children experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic, illustrates that families with incomes above the poverty level experience food insecurity in the United States. The programs enacted during the pandemic were temporary in nature, but it remains an option for policy makers to adopt policies that could make the results longer lasting. We can build on lessons learned over the years and during the pandemic to continue to drive down food insecurity.