There are policy tools to strengthen safety nets — why not use them?

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Six months ago the House passed a $3 trillion HEROES bill that was meant to be the next massive stimulus to help blunt the unprecedented COVID-19 impacts. 

After unsuccessfully negotiating with the Senate and White House for several months, the House passed a second version of the HEROES bill on Oct. 1 — this time totaling $2.2 trillion. This second attempt appears to have stalled and is unlikely to move until at least after the election. It could be longer.

When it comes to the next wave of stimulus relief, much is unknown, but here is what we do know. 

Food insecurity or lack of access to nutritious food due to limited resources has more than doubled overall and tripled among households with children. COVID-19 infections are starting to rise and are expected to escalate when the pandemic collides with the flu. Eight million more people (including 2.5 million children) have been living in poverty since May. In the first week of October, 800,000 people filed new applications for unemployment. One out of every six renters was behind on rent in September. Over the summer, about half of Americans reported serious financial problems such as struggles paying for medical care or difficulty paying credit card bills.

And all of this is significantly worse among Black and Brown populations who face a longer road to recovery. One recent analysis found that the pandemic has triggered “the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history.” 

As the devastating path of COVID-19 widens and more stimulus relief remains elusive, the reliance on the federal safety net has risen. This includes major federal programs that provide food assistance, housing assistance, health insurance — all of which are designed to support income-eligible Americans. 

Let’s just focus on food assistance, which has become a critical stop gap for families as stimulus funds have dried up.

From February to May, enrollment in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), which is the largest federal nutrition assistance program, grew by 17 percent. This is about three times faster than in any previous three months and is equivalent to more than 6 million more people enrolling, bringing overall participation to about 43 million people or 1 in 8 Americans. And this is likely an underestimate as it does not include a likely rise in participation since the $600 weekly bonus to unemployment checks expired. 

SNAP is a proven way to lift families out of poverty, reduce food insecurity and boost the economy. And unlike unemployment benefits, which have been plagued by delays, new SNAP benefits have been quickly distributed. The problem is that benefits are not sufficient

The monthly per person benefit is $136, which averages to about $1.40 per meal. An analysis from a few years ago indicated that the SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a meal in 99 percent of U.S. continental counties and Washington, D.C., and food prices have risen considerably since the start of the pandemic. To meet unmet needs, the House HEROES bills included a temporary 15 percent increase in the SNAP benefit, equivalent to about $100 for a family of four each month. Such a change would significantly strengthen the federal food safety net. A similar SNAP expansion during the Great Recession helped to reduce food insecurity among low-income households, especially those with children. 

In addition to complicating negotiations for the next stimulus relief package, the Trump administration has done nothing to rescind or reverse a variety of their aggressive efforts to slash SNAP participation. Three key changes — stricter work requirements for program eligibility, a proposed cap on deductions for utility allowances and a proposal to not allow states to automatically enroll families into SNAP when they receive other forms of federal aid — are expected to reduce participation by 3.7 million people if and when all go into effect. Congressional legislation and a lawsuit helped delay the implementation of the final rule on SNAP work requirements. But in May, the USDA issued guidance explaining certain provisions were not affected by the lawsuit and are in effect as of Oct. 1.

The Trump administration has also made no effort to reverse the “public charge” rule that became final in February and denies lawfully present noncitizens a path to citizenship if they had participated in certain federal safety net programs, including SNAP. The Department of Homeland Security estimated that the rule would affect 382,000 people, but that is likely an underestimate. Already, the rule appears to be reducing participation among thousands of children. A variety of studies and organizations have indicated this rule is having a chilling effect on participation in a variety of federal social safety net programs not explicitly listed in the public charge rule, including the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). About half of all infants born in the U.S. participate in WIC, which provides critical nutrition assistance to income-eligible women, infants and young children, even more so when not in childcare during this pandemic.

The negative effects of food insecurity, heightened by the pandemic and exacerbated by rules aimed at dampening participation, are sure to be long-lasting, especially for Black and Brown populations who are most affected.

In the short-term, the holidays are approaching and it is hard not to think about the millions of Americans who will have trouble putting food on their table. 

We have the policy tools to strengthen the safety net now and for the future. We just need the political will to make it happen. Vote for the millions left behind by this administration.

Sara Bleich PhD, is a professor of Public Health Policy, Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Sheila Fleischhacker PhD, JD, is an adjunct professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center

Tags Black and Brown communities Food Stamps Heroes Act low-income families public charge rule safety net Snap Stimulus Package Trump administration

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