Congress: how long will you let children and families go hungry?

Congress: how long will you let children and families go hungry?
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Surging COVID-19 cases in dozens of states underscore a sad truth — the United States is not on a fast path to address this health crisis. As many stay home in fear of contracting COVID-19, millions of workers at restaurants, hotels and salons are paying the price. Congress must respond to the urgent needs of low-wage and newly unemployed workers and assist with economic recovery. Strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be a priority on both counts. 

State reopenings have done little to augment spending or bolster local employment, as many remain hesitant to frequent restaurants, hotels and airports until health concerns abate. Meanwhile, low-wage workers and their families continue to go hungry.

Food insecurity is the most common hardship among workers with reduced hours and the newly unemployed. Black and Hispanic workers face steeper employment declines and hunger spikes. Four in 10 Black and Hispanic households with children report not having enough to eat — a devastating statistic with lifelong consequences.

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The cruel irony is that the very workers who help ensure we all stay comfortable and fed — who are disproportionately women and people of color — have themselves long needed government assistance to keep food on the table. Communities of color have been historically impacted by policies that hinder fair access to home loans, worker protections and well-resourced schools, perpetuating poverty and deficient food environments. The pandemic is only deepening these existing health and economic inequities. 

Congress has untapped tools at its disposal to respond to this hunger emergency. But where is the urgency on Capitol Hill? 

One-time income transfers and expanded unemployment benefits through the March Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act offered crucial relief, but many supports will soon expire (on July 31) and food insecurity is double pre-pandemic levels. 

Helping those most in need is both compassionate and good for the economy. Congress increased SNAP benefits during the Great Recession and it proved a powerful tool for mitigating suffering and stimulating the economy. SNAP benefits are spent quickly and free up income to purchase other needed resources — generating a return on investment that makes the Congressional Budget Office deem SNAP one of the most effective economic supports during a recession. Every $1 in federal SNAP spending generates at least $1.50 in economic activity

Congressional stimulus packages passed so far allow states to increase SNAP benefits for two months for some, yet the poorest 40 percent of participants, including five million children, have yet to see any benefit increase. Public health professionals, anti-hunger experts and economists all agree that SNAP must be a priority in the next relief package — 2,500 organizations across the country are urging Congress to strengthen SNAP by increasing the benefit and suspending attempts by the Trump administration, which preceded the pandemic, to restrict access to the program. 

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A boost to SNAP benefits would quickly appear on the electronic benefit cards of SNAP participants and ease unprecedented strain on the charitable food system. Food banks across the country are tweeting for Congress to #ShortenTheLines at their pantries by increasing SNAP benefits. Yet as pantry volunteers work day and night to navigate a pandemic-disrupted supply chain and feed millions of unemployed workers and their children, Congress continues to sit idly by. A Congressionally mandated SNAP benefit increase would, within weeks, transfer food purchasing power to hungry families who will quickly spend these benefits, generating revenue for local businesses. 

Strengthening SNAP in the next relief package is a no-brainer. Congress should immediately tap into this powerful tool to help millions of low-wage workers and their families put food on the table and put money back into local economies. 

Maya Sandalow is a policy associate at CSPI and focuses on SNAP access and health equity. Maya holds a Master of Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College.