Editor’s Note: Wes Moore is CEO of Robin Hood, one of the largest anti-poverty forces in the nation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
For many Americans, this holiday season will be marred by loss and deprivation due to the pandemic. Not only will we be mourning the more than 275,000 Americans we’ve lost to the virus, but its widespread effects on unemployment, businesses and access to food have left a staggering one out of six Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from.
Hunger skyrocketed at the pandemic’s onset because of record high job losses, school closures and strained food pantries. But at that point, Americans were better positioned to make ends meet with support from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp, benefits. Yet, as we near year’s end, the problem is getting worse, not better. With the expiration of CARES Act benefits and without any hint as to when the next round of federal aid will hit people’s pockets, families around the country are suffering and will likely continue to do so throughout the holiday season.
The current amount of SNAP benefits is insufficient to cover the food needs of families. The benefit amount needs to be increased significantly, as was done temporarily during the 2009 financial crisis.
Take New York City, for instance. The city was the early epicenter of Covid-19 in the United States, managing to curb the disease’s spread midsummer even while grappling with economic devastation that resulted in nearly half of all New York City workers – and more than half of low-wage, Black and Hispanic workers – losing their jobs or part of their paychecks. And now, as a second wave looms, families, communities and businesses already struggling to get back on their feet are poised to be knocked down yet again.
More than 40% of New Yorkers surveyed in Robin Hood’s Food Hardship Poverty Tracker ran out of food or worried they would run out of food before the end of the month without money to buy more. Without additional federal benefits, our country’s biggest mechanism to help families afford food – SNAP – can’t meet New Yorkers’ food needs. The benefits need to increase to really meet the individual and household food needs (as evidenced by the high proportion of SNAP recipients who have to turn to food pantries).
Nearly 1.7 million New Yorkers rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families, but 60% of SNAP recipients still turned to food pantries this fall, more than double what was noted in January and February. Their benefits haven’t been enough to keep food on the table.
This same situation is unfolding across the country, community by community. Though nonprofits, food banks and local officials have worked tirelessly to stave off the food insecurity threatening people’s lives and livelihoods, we cannot curb it without further intervention at the federal level. At a minimum, Congress needs to increase maximum SNAP benefits by 15%, translating to a nationwide average of an additional $25 a month in the pockets of each SNAP recipient, which means $100 per month for a family of four. This policy implementation would not only help Americans feed themselves and their families, but would help bolster the economy, as every $1 increase in SNAP benefits is shown to boost GDP by $1.50 – driving economic recovery that would help the entire country get back on its feet faster.
People should not have to choose between buying food and running out of SNAP benefits before month’s end or going hungry to make ends meet. They should not have to choose between being forced to return to work at a job where safety precautions aren’t being taken seriously or going hungry. And they absolutely should not have to choose between paying rent or putting food on the table.
With meaningful federal intervention, these choices would not have to exist. It’s critical that the government act now to implement policies that will curb the hunger faced by so many. Millions of people’s lives and livelihoods depend on it.