Has the Pandemic Changed Anti-Hunger Policy Forever?
There is no silver lining to a pandemic in which more than 700,000 people have died and millions have suffered severe economic and emotional distress. But the government’s response to COVID-19, specifically in the use of direct-cash benefits, has raised hopes that in the midst of tragedy, policy solutions may have been discovered that could make the future brighter. Politico senior food and agriculture reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich explored the topic recently in a story headlined: “Could COVID-19 finally end hunger in America?” Spotlight spoke with her recently about what policymakers have learned about curbing food insecurity during the pandemic and what those insights may mean for future policy. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We really enjoyed your story and just wanted to explore it a bit more. To start, is it your sense that the general consensus in the field now is that this gigantic infusion of cash for working families during the pandemic worked?
I think that is the consensus among the economists that I talk to and the advocates that I talk to. There’s certainly some ideological disagreement about whether or not this really worked or whether or not it’s sustainable or whether or not we should spend this much money or expand these programs in this way. But I think that’s the thing that was so interesting about reporting this, that there seems to be a lot more consensus about success than I think the public realizes or that the narrative has been because the pandemic has been so full of upheaval and tragedy and trauma. And that’s all true. But there has also been a, a lot of success in the response. I mean, that’s just what the data show. I mean, the fact that poverty rates could go down and hunger could hold steady during a crazy shock like this— economists I was talking to were using word like amazing and astonishing to describe that.
And how much do you think the political pendulum has swung?
It’s such an important question and I don’t know that we know yet. After the Biden administration did the 27 percent increase in SNAP benefits on pre-pandemic benefit levels, a pretty marked permanent increase, I didn’t have any angry press releases in my inbox. And I was thinking back to the 2018 Farm Bill, and there was this huge fight over a whether or not we should impose stricter work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents that receive SNAP. And just thinking back to where that debate was, I think the politics are totally different right now, but I don’t know if it will stay that way. You do have some House and Senate Republicans on the Ag committees saying, we have some questions, we want GAO to review how they got to the 27 percent increase, and they sent a letter asking for a review. But there was none of this overly political backlash. There was none of that—and that’s a huge change in terms of rhetoric and framing. It was just unthinkable, even a couple years ago, that you would do direct cash assistance to millions of people with no strings attached, no work requirements, no applications. It was unthinkable that you could do a 27 percent permanent increase in SNAP benefits and not have a political brawl. In that sense, things are different, but I just don’t know how permanent it is. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. We’re still in a crisis. In some ways it was hard to do this story because you’re trying to take a step back and be like, what have we learned? And we’re still in it, you know?
Are there key data points that people feel are missing, giving that this is an ongoing crisis?
I think most people don’t have any concept that poverty has come down or that food insecurity didn’t go up. I think that’s really surprising to people. The number one kind of anecdotal piece of pushback I’ve gotten from the story, including from some people in my family, is what about the food bank lines? They were so long and there was just so much need that we saw on TV. And that was all absolutely true. There’s no question that food bank need went up and overall need went up. And there was a lot of uncertainty with people having to stay at home or working in essential jobs and not having child care. I think the visuals of that in some ways were more powerful to people who just didn’t understand how many people are normally going to food banks. Millions of people are helped by the emergency food assistance system every day, even when the economy is good. For some people, I think seeing that normal need on top of, you know, the increased need that made it so viscerally powerful. But the data we have does push back a little bit on some of the public narrative about what has happened. It masks, absolutely, entrenched and unacceptable racial inequities. I mean, there’s no question about that. The fact that Black household food insecurity rates have gone up and they went down for White households, that gap widening has a lot of people really, really concerned. So, I don’t want to in any way suggest that there is unqualified, good news here. But the macro picture is different than I think the narrative has been.
Are there areas where people who look at this closely need to get more data? Are there blind spots that need to be filled data wise?
I’m hearing a lot more debate about how we measure food insecurity generally and are we doing a good enough job? There are populations we don’t have good data for, like Native Americans. Do we have really good pulse data for all these different subpopulations in the Asian-American community? I’m hearing more conversations about that and also are we accurately measuring food insecurity? Have we always underestimated it? And perhaps the biggest question is whether any of this progress going to stick around? That’s the biggest thing I’m hearing as reconciliation is inching forward.
Do you find that people on the Hill are at least cautiously confident about many of these provisions, particularly the expanded Child Tax Credit?
I think there is a fair amount of confidence about at least an extension. It’s certainly the conventional wisdom that it will get extended. I was talking to a family just this morning who found it incredibly helpful. I grew up in a low-income, single mom household, and I was talking to my mom recently about what would the CTC have meant in terms of household-level impact. And she said it would have been game changing. We’ll have to see how the politics play out, but I think the numbers are showing that there’s just clear, clear positive economic impact.
One final question. The headline for your piece is ‘Can COVID End Hunger?’ Is there an answer to that or is it still too soon to tell?
I think it’s too soon to tell. What we saw that clearly, giving aid to families reduces hardship; that’s what the numbers show. What policy makers ultimately do with that I think remains to be seen. But my guess is this period of time will be studied for a very long time because it is unlike the other ways the government has responded to economic disruption. Many, many issues remain—widening racial inequality and rising food insecurity is alarming to many, many people. And I think we’re going see a lot more discussion about what needs to be done there. But when you zoom out, the government response has had a really, really big impact in terms of reducing hardship overall, macro level. I think that’s the biggest takeaway.