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A Pivotal Moment for Hungry Americans

A Republican plan to restrict food aid could reverse years of progress.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There are few bright spots in the landscape of American inequality. Wages remain stagnant, the racial wealth gap persists, and student loan debt hit a cumulative $1.5 trillion this year. But food insecurity has been on a steady decline. A new USDA report, published on Wednesday, revealed a statistically significant drop last year in rates of both food insecurity and very low food security. “An estimated 11.8 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2017, down from 2016 and continuing a decline from a high of 14.9 percent in 2011, while still above the pre-recession (2007) level of 11.1 percent,” researchers wrote. Food insecurity outside metropolitan locations declined sharply, and food insecurity among children remained relatively static, hovering around 8 percent of households with children.

Experts typically associate rates of food insecurity, which the USDA defines as reports of “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet,” and very low food security, which indicates reduced and disrupted food intake, as markers of economic inequality. On its own, declining food insecurity doesn’t necessarily indicate progress in addressing inequality overall, but it’s a positive sign—for now.

Congress could soon reverse this slow progress. House and Senate officials begin meeting this week to reconcile two different versions of the farm bill, which gets renewed every five years or so. If the compromise bill resembles the version passed by the House, low-income families may find themselves in desperate circumstances. The House farm bill raises the eligibility threshold for households seeking access to the Supplemental Assistance for Needy Families Program—also known as food stamps—and would hike allowable household resources from $2,250 to $7,000 for families without an elderly or disabled member. (The Senate version of the bill omits those hikes.)

Raising eligibility standards in this manner would cut SNAP benefits for two million households, according to an analysis published Thursday by Mathematica Policy Research and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That’s higher than an earlier estimate by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found that the bill would cut or reduce assistance for 1 million low-income households. According to Mathematica, 34 percent of the affected households include a senior, 23 percent include children, and 11 percent include a person with a disability.

Mathematica only examined the impact of the House bill’s eligibility hikes. But that isn’t the only way the bill would reduce access to benefits. It also expands work requirements. While the Senate rejected that particular notion of reform in its version of the same legislation, advocates for work requirements find support in other corners. President Donald Trump enthusiastically tweeted on Tuesday that forcing families to work a certain number of hours in order to qualify for food aid would “bolster farmers and get America back to work.”

In fact, work requirements, as the impact of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program shows, amount to welfare cuts. After then-President Bill Clinton signed TANF in 1996, as part of welfare reform, benefits fell steadily over time, leaving low-income families worse off than they had been before TANF came into force; the program requires most adult recipients to work a certain number of hours in order to qualify for assistance. “[Work requirements] end up having a very large number of people who lose benefits and have nothing as a replacement. So our expectation is if we have very large numbers of people subject to those requirements, we will have lots of people who have no resources to put food on the table,” LaDonna Pavetti of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities told Marketplace in April.

Whether Congress cuts SNAP through stricter work requirements, or by raising eligibility standards, or both, the end result likely will be the same. Food insecurity will rise. The conditions are already present. Hunger’s decline is a tenuous one, and for some communities it remains a major problem. As the USDA report showed, food insecurity has yet to drop below pre-recession rates, and both food insecurity and very low food security remain concentrated in black and Hispanic households, mostly in the South. The states of Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana suffer from the highest rates of food insecurity; at least 17 percent of each state’s population reports having inadequate access to food. According to USDA data from 2015, at least two of those states, Arizona and Arkansas, also had lower rates of SNAP participation than two-thirds of all states.

There’s a correlation here. “SNAP is incredibly effective at reducing food insecurity,” said Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. She added, “SNAP keeps millions of people out of poverty. It’s one of the most effective programs in protecting children from experiencing experiencing hunger. We know that it’s associated with better long term health outcomes and education outcomes for kids, and it’s a very important form of support for people.”

Without those programs in place, or with access to those programs suddenly more difficult to obtain, more families will struggle to eat. “Given what we know, which is that SNAP and the school meals program are enormously important for children’s health and education, you would see a rise in food insecurity,” Boteach said.

Outside the United States, the consequences of austerity—a reduction in welfare spending, ostensibly to reduce national debt—have demonstrably resulted in increased food insecurity. In the U.K., a 2015 paper published by The BMJ concluded that welfare cuts increased the likelihood of a food bank opening in a community, and that while higher rates of food bank use can be caused by a number of factors, austerity measures did play a role. “Importantly, when controlling for the association with the capacity of food banks to provide food we still observed that greater central government welfare cuts, sanctioning, and unemployment rates were significantly associated with higher rates of food parcel distribution,” researchers concluded. In April 2018, the Trussel Trust, which privately funds the distribution of food aid to low-income families in the U.K., reported that food bank use had reached a new peak, and that low incomes and decreasing benefits had driven the increase.

Food-insecure households need welfare. While it isn’t necessarily false that work could raise a family’s income and therefore reduce insecurity on a number of fronts, the state of the American economy offers little hope that work can consistently lift families out of poverty. “Food insecurity is a symptom of a larger issue, where we have too many low wage and volatile jobs,” Boteach said. “So you might have somebody who is employed, but their income is unstable, or they get their hours cut, or they’re only making minimum wage. The nature of low wage work in America means that there are a lot of people who are struggling, who still need to turn to nutrition assistance to put food on the table.”