More Americans in need of government assistance as food insecurity rises (UPDATED)

A man shops at a WalMart — one of the many stores that accept SNAP and P-EBT benefits. By: Hanson Lu

By: Kelsey Carolan

While trying to keep her growing son fed when schools closed their doors in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Michelle Bashore admitted, it was hard to keep a positive attitude despite still receiving government assistance for food.

Bashore, who lives in Urbana, Ohio, said in a phone interview that she received about $120 in both March and April per month for her son through Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) benefits, established by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

“Prices of food and stuff went up and I am trying to accommodate with all the bills and all the food,” Bashore said after she ran out of the P-EBT benefits in May. “Not having that much food in the house is kind of rough because he eats a lot but we get by.”

P-EBT, an entirely new program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides benefits to children who received free or reduced-price school meals that would have otherwise gone to schools to provide them with those meals. They can be used to buy the same foods that can be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

Before the pandemic hit, 30 million low-income children were approved to receive free or reduced-price meals at school each day. They all received P-EBT benefits, like Bashore’s son.

And besides families who newly began relying on P-EBT benefits just to feed their children who were now home from school, low-income households and adults who lost their jobs applied for SNAP benefits – in October, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released that 11% of adults reported that their households did not have enough to eat in the previous week compared to 3.7% before the pandemic.

Increased Need for Government Food Assistance

According to Feeding America, 13.2 million more Americans are projected to be food insecure when compared to the number in 2018, bringing the overall number of food-insecure Americans to 50.4 million. Of that 13.2 million addition, 5.8 million are children, bringing the total number of food-insecure children to 17 million – 34% of the total of the projected number of food-insecure Americans.

“We’re really concerned that millions of kids are experiencing food insecurity and rapidly increasing at unprecedented levels in modern history and now about 14 million kids are not getting enough to eat,” said Mamiko Vuillemin, Senior Manager of Policy and Advocacy at FoodCorps, a non-profit that works with communities to connect kids with healthy meals in schools.

Bashore was concerned about her child becoming food-insecure after his school closed in March. Ohio – as states decide how much money they want to allocate toward P-EBT benefits per child – only gave each child $5.70 for each day a school was closed from the beginning of the pandemic to the end of the school year.

But Bashore said she was grateful for the extra assistance the government provided her with.

“Even if it was $50 or what not – it was $120 – and that was fine, that was good.”

Meghan McHugh, a mother of five from Philadelphia, Penn., said in a phone interview that she was also grateful that her school provided her with the P-EBT card – she said it came as a surprise to her since her kids didn’t use the free or reduced-price meals even though they were eligible.

“It was awesome because it was like, okay, here’s more spending money for food,” McHugh said. “I think I ended up getting around a total of $1,000.”

McHugh said it was an extra bonus since she didn’t even have to apply for the benefits – she said the card came in the mail and all she had to do was call a phone number to set a pin.

“It definitely helped out because my kids were home eating all day,” McHugh said. “My kids are still eating out the house.”

And even households who received P-EBT cards could still receive SNAP benefits. According to a report by Hunger Free America, the total caseload for SNAP benefits jumped 14% from March to July. During the pandemic, the spending on SNAP increasing significantly due to the FFCRA’s provision that allowed states to maximize its benefits.

However, the USDA’s interpretated the provision as bringing all SNAP households up to the maximum benefits instead of providing additional benefits to households who already received the maximum – most of which are the poorest households.

“If you are receiving $100 in SNAP benefits per month and you are an individual, because you are working, it brings you down to $100, to say now, the pandemic happens and the act came out, you would be able to receive up to $194 which is the maximum for an individual,” said Parker Gilkesson, Policy Analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an anti-poverty nonprofit. “It was interpreted by a lot of us advocates that you would be able to receive up to double so for example if you were receiving $100, you would be able to receive $192 on top of that. So whatever you’re receiving, you are receiving the maximum on top of that which is much more effective for people to be able to afford food assistance than just maximizing people to the max.”

Pennsylvania, among other states, filed lawsuits against the USDA for this interpretation, claiming that they are excluding 40% of Pennsylvania SNAP households from receiving additional emergency benefits. In September, a preliminary injunction was ordered, temporarily stopping the USDA from holding back the additional emergency benefits from these households until there is a final judgement.

People who hadn’t received additional emergency benefits or still did not qualify for SNAP benefits turned to food shelters to save money.

“They’re really good at helping people and giving people food,” Bashore said. “They even had a drive-thru at the fairgrounds and the school and we went the other day and we got a whole turkey.”

But food shelters are struggling to meet rising demands – Feeding America recently reported that 40% of people going to food banks now never went to them for help before.

“With the hours and stuff that people have – the up and down and getting laid off – I think everybody should have it [benefits],” Bashore said.

Trump Administration

Despite the national emergency and the increase in food-insecure Americans, the Trump administration has proposed multiple new rules that would cut benefits and impose new eligibility requirements.

Prior to the pandemic, the Trump administration wanted to impose additional work requirements to qualify for SNAP benefits on poor adults without children. Focusing on “able-bodied adults without dependents,” the rule would require them to work or be in a training program or they would be limited to only three months of food stamps within a three-year period.

According to an estimate by the Urban Institute, 700,000 Americans would have been affected – a federal judge blocked the rule in October due to the impact of the pandemic, considering rising unemployment rates and a weaker economy.

In October, the unemployment rate was 6.9% — nearly twice the rate that it was in February. And according to the ruling, enrollment in food stamps surged by 17% through May.

“There is this perception of people who receive public benefits that one, they don’t want to work or are not working and that is just not true,” said Gilkesson. “Folks who are receiving public benefits, majority of them are working, oftentimes working for very low wages and oftentimes working part-time, not by choice, but because their employer decided to place them at part-time versus full-time and oftentimes, if they’re not working, there is a very valid reason as to why.”

Despite what anti-hunger advocates claim to be a victory against the Trump White House, they are still fighting other cuts he has proposed – one of which would affect food-insecure children.

The “categorical eligibility” rule that was proposed prior to the pandemic in 2019 aims to end automatic eligibility for those who were already receiving federal and state assistance. Currently, 43 states allow people who receive other forms of government assistance to enroll in SNAP. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters at the time that SNAP benefits should be a temporary safety net.

“If enacted, it would cut nutritional assistance for 3 million people and not only that, it would also impede automatic access to free school meals for nearly 1 million kids which is a lot given 30 million kids relying on school meals,” Vuillemin said. “We opposed that rule when it was first announced and we’re urging the incoming Biden administration to halt that rule before becoming finalized.”

Looking Forward to the Biden Administration

Anti-hunger advocates like Vuillemin and Gilkesson are urging the incoming administration to increase SNAP benefits due to the increasing negative impacts of the pandemic.

And President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign previously proposed to increase SNAP benefits by 15% and provide low-income families with an additional $100 per month in nutritional benefits. House Democrats also previously proposed the 15% increase, but a stimulus bill deal still hasn’t been reached.

“SNAP is the most effective and efficient way to reduce food insecurity and its the biggest anti-hunger program we have in the nation and along with other anti-nation hunger advocates across the country, we’re urging Congress to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent,” Vuillemin said. “That would really give families the resources to buy food they need to feed their kids and to stay healthy during and beyond the pandemic. And that money that those families would be spending using SNAP benefits will go back to the economy.”

Gilkesson is hopeful that Biden will work to increase and improve SNAP benefits overall, not just for the extent of the pandemic. She also said she believes they will work to undo or reject Trump’s proposed rules and changes.

“We will be pushing for more changes within the SNAP program, administratively and within the terms of eligibility and making sure that all of the proposed rules that came out of the Trump administration to cut benefits to SNAP recipients will all be stopped and not be able to continue forward and making sure that we increase SNAP benefits in general,” Gilkesson said.

Gilkesson also said she hopes that the pandemic’s effects shows people that government assistance is not something to be ashamed of, and she hopes the Biden administration will help encourage that message.

“Reaching out for help when you need it is an honorable thing to do. Living in a country that has the means and the wealth to be able to help its citizens when they are in need is absolutely admirable and we should not look at it as less than that at all.”

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