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Weave a Stronger Safety Net Post-COVID

The coronavirus pandemic has opened some gaping holes in our nation’s social safety net, especially where hunger and malnutrition are concerned. Millions of low-income workers have lost their jobs (and will soon lose expanded unemployment benefits if Congress fails to extend them) and millions of children in low-income families have lost access to school meals because the K-12 system has shutdown. These twin blows have triggered a dramatic rise in hunger and food insecurity in America.

Even before the pandemic hit, an estimated 37 million people, including 11 million children, reported experiencing food insecurity or hunger. Unless Covid-19 is contained, that estimate could reach 54 million by the end of 2020.

America’s most vulnerable populations – poor families with children, Black Americans, Hispanics and those living in rural areas and the South – are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and hunger. Their school-aged children also are more likely to rely on free and reduced-price school meals to meet their nutritional needs.

In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided emergency food assistance and authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the states to adapt the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to meet the needs of the hungry during the crisis. According to a Center on Budget Policy Priorities report, almost all states have taken advantage of the flexibility the Act provides to maintain SNAP benefits to households with children missing school meals.

Before Covid-19, the national school lunch program on average served nearly 29 million students, and the school breakfast program served nearly 15 million students. When the schools closed in March, many school districts scrambled to keep feeding their students, by establishing “Grab and Go” sites for picking up meals, or establishing daily meal delivery routes using buses to deliver food rather than transport students.

Despite these improvisations, however, most school aged children apparently are not receiving as much food as they did before their schools closed. For example, a survey of school nutritional professionals found that 80 percent of school districts reported serving fewer meals since school closures. Of those districts, 59 percent have seen the number of meals served drop by 50% or more.

In response to the K-12 shutdown, the Families First Act created the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program that provides food to families that have lost access to free and reduced-priced meals. This one-time meal replacement benefit is added to an existing electronic benefits transfer card for families already receiving SNAP. Families with school-age children that don’t receive SNAP can also get a card.

SNAP historically has proven to be one of the nation’s most effective programs for providing low-income households with food during economic downturns. That makes it a powerful counter-cyclical policy tool. Research shows each $1 of SNAP benefits generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in total economic activity. Yet when Congress in April passed its next pandemic relief measure, the CARES Act, it increased more operational funding for SNAP operations but failed to increase SNAP direct benefits.

There are compelling moral and economic reasons why U.S. lawmakers should make offering more food aid a top priority as Covid-19 infections climb in most of the states, slowing economic recovery and causing more workers to file for unemployment. In the first place, hungry and malnourished people are more vulnerable to disease. There’s also a strong possibility that many K-12 students will not be able to go back to school in September, despite President Trump’s ill-considered calls for a general reopening. Additionally, by supporting food consumption by low-income families, more aid stimulates demand and keeps our stricken economy afloat.

To meet the immediate crisis, PPI endorses anti-hunger provisions of the HEROES Act that House Democrats passed in May, but is now blocked by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. These include:

• Increasing the SNAP maximum benefit by 15 percent through September 30, 2021, which translates into an additional $25 per person each month;

• Raising the minimum monthly benefit from$16 to $30;

• Adding $3 billion for child nutrition programs; and,

• Extending the Pandemic Electronic Benefits program through the fall of next year.

MODERNIZING THE SAFETY NET

This is also the right time to look beyond the current crisis and ask how our country can build a more resilient system of social supports that can better protect our most vulnerable citizens against future pandemics and other emergencies.

“While it’s true that government safety net programs help tens of millions of Americans avoid starvation, homelessness, and other outcomes even more dreadful than everyday poverty, it is also true that, even in ‘normal times,’ government aid for non-wealthy people is generally a major hassle to obtain and to keep,” notes Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America.

“Put yourself in the places of aid applicants for a moment,” Berg added. “You will need to go to one government office or web portal to apply for SNAP, a different government office to apply for housing assistance or UI, a separate WIC clinic to obtain WIC benefits, and a variety of other government offices to apply for other types of help—sometimes traveling long distances by public transportation or on foot to get there—and then once you’ve walked through the door, you are often forced to wait for hours at each office to be served. These administrative burdens fall the greatest on the least wealthy Americans.”

A survey of low-income households by Hunger Free America found that 42 percent said it was “time-consuming and/or difficult to apply” for Unemployment Insurance, and nearly a quarter said the same about applying for SNAP. In addition, “40 percent of respondents said they had problems reaching government offices while applying for SNAP, with 36 percent stating that they never received a call back after leaving
a message.”

To reduce the high “opportunity costs” of being poor in America, the federal and state governments should adopt modern digital technologies that help low-income families apply once for public benefits without having to run a bureaucratic gauntlet of siloed programs for nutrition, housing, unemployment, job training, mental health services, and more. Specifically, as Berg proposed in a 2016 report for PPI, governments at all levels should cooperate to create online accounts from which families can apply remotely for all the benefits they qualify for, and into which they can deposit their public assistance.

This proposal is the centerpiece of a new bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Joe Morelle (D-NY) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). The Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment (HOPE Act) would fund state and local pilot projects setting up online HOPE accounts to make it easier for low-income people to apply for multiple benefits programs with their computer or mobile phone. In addition to saving them time, money and aggravation, HOPE accounts enable people to manage their benefits – effectively becoming their own “case manager” – and easing their dependence on often inefficient and unresponsive social welfare bureaucracies.

In keeping with former Vice President Joe Biden’s “Build back better” theme, expanding food aid now to stem a surge in hunger, while deploying digital technology to give low-income Americans more control over their economic security, can help us weave a stronger and more resilient social safety net, rather than simply plugging holes in the old one.

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