As the United States Senate reconvenes to negotiate what may well be the final COVID-19 relief package, addressing food insecurity must be a top priority. The lasting negative impacts of hunger, especially for children, are widely known. Congress has not only the opportunity, but the duty to act to avoid those consequences and support families across the country by raising the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit by 15 percent.
Recent surveys conducted by the United States Census Bureau confirm the impact COVID-19 has had on food security across the country. In West Virginia, there were dramatic increases in household food insecurity over a short period of time. Households are considered food insecure if they experience limited access to adequate food due to a lack of money and other resources. Over 20 percent of households with children faced food insecurity in the first week of June as the school year came to a close. While food insecurity has decreased since that initial spike, it still remains higher than it did pre-pandemic.
The West Virginia public school system has an enormous impact on the food security of children in the state. Through the community eligibility provision (CEP), West Virginia leads the nation in providing free and reduced breakfast and lunch to more than 120,000 children across the state. This service not only supports better education and health outcomes for children, it also relieves the budgets of working families as these meals are federally subsidized. In an average year, free and reduced meals at public schools save West Virginia families over $120 million.
When in-person school was cancelled on March 13, the cost of meals that otherwise would have been covered by federal dollars was shifted back onto families. Making matters worse, this extra financial burden to keep food on the table occurred just as over 100,000 West Virginians lost their jobs, leading to significantly less income coming into their households.
West Virginia did apply for and receive approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) to families whose children received free and reduced price breakfast and lunch to compensate them for the value of the school meals they were no longer receiving due to school closures. These funds, a one-time payment of $313 per eligible child, did help alleviate some of the burden on families.
However, because of complications and delays implementing a new benefit program, many West Virginia families did not receive their one-time P-EBT payments until later in June, more than three months after in-person school had been cancelled for the year. This kind of delay significantly increases hardship on low-income families who don’t have the means to wait long periods of time for critical food assistance.
Congress would do better to combine continued P-EBT with an 15 percent increase in maximum SNAP benefits. Doing so would quickly increase household food budgets. Congress could vote today to increase maximum SNAP benefits and families would have those food assistance dollars within a matter of weeks. This would also allow more time for a possible second round of P-EBT to be implemented which would further support food security for West Virginia children.
With the cancellation of in-person school for K-12 students, families are being forced to pay out of pocket for meals that would normally be covered during the school day by federal dollars. Further exacerbating the hardship for families are the increased costs of groceries being driven by the pandemic. COVID-19 has laid bare the vulnerabilities of America’s food supply chain, and pandemic-related disruptions have driven the price of groceries 5.6 percent higher in June of 2020 versus one year prior.
The increased demand on household food budgets combined with lower earnings for families due to a massive unemployment spike and significantly higher costs of groceries has led to a predictable outcome: West Virginia families don’t have the food they need to make it through the month, and people are going hungry. Data collected through the Census Household Pulse Survey revealed a staggering 82,000 West Virginia “adults living with children” reported that the children in their care were not eating enough because they simply could not afford the necessary food.
SNAP is no stranger to taking on crisis, and Congress should leverage the nation’s foremost anti-hunger initiative to ensure families have access to the food they need for as long as the recession caused by COVID-19 lasts.
By raising the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent, an average family of four would see approximately $100 in additional food assistance. Total SNAP payments in West Virginia for the month of April totaled about $55 million. A 15 percent increase would mean West Virginia families would see an additional $8 million in SNAP benefits per month to help close the food security gaps created specifically by the pandemic.
Boosting SNAP benefits is also one of the most efficient ways to stimulate local economies. For every dollar in SNAP spent, $1.70 of economic activity is generated. Based off of June SNAP payments, this means a 15 percent increase in maximum benefits could generate approximately $13 million in monthly economic impact.
Additionally, when families have money to buy the food they need through SNAP, it frees up dollars in their budgets to pay for other expenses which provides an even further positive impact, both for families and the economy at large.
The initial CARES Act left behind many of our most vulnerable West Virginians who were already receiving the maximum benefit. 39 percent of SNAP households are below 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Line and many of the relief provisions passed neglected these neighbors in need even though their circumstances did not improve in the face of a global pandemic. This should help illuminate why, within the Census Household Pulse survey, Black and brown communities had significantly higher rates of food insecurity than their white counterparts. A 15 percent increase in maximum SNAP benefits would help to begin to reduce this disparity.
SNAP has been a critical tool for responding to rising food insecurity in West Virginia, and has seen a six percent increase in enrollment from February to May of 2020. During the next round of COVID-19 legislative relief measures, Congress must leverage the institutional power of the nation’s most successful food assistance program by increasing the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent. Boosting SNAP benefits will pay immediate and long-term dividends for low-income families and the very poor, helping them to put food on the table and weather the current crisis.
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