BY DIANE SCHANZENBACH
On a recent chilly morning, a boy named Tahari stood in line with his mother at a food pantry on Chicago’s South Side. He wore a Spider-Man hat and a Mickey Mouse face mask.
The boy said his favorite subjects are reading and math. His most immediate need is food.
Across the country, families are lining up at food pantries because they cannot afford to buy their own food. The lines stretch down city blocks and extend for miles down country roads. Hunger, it turns out, doesn’t have a geographic location or political affiliation.
We are Americans first, and an increasing number of us are going hungry.
Despite the alarming need for food assistance as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers in Congress have yet to unleash the single most effective stimulus tool used during the Great Recession — increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, across the board.
It would be unconscionable and heart-breaking to miss the opportunity to ease the suffering and spur economic growth in this next round of stimulus aid. Food banks across the country are overwhelmed by the growing need and are calling on Congress to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent. This is not a crisis that charity alone can address.
Families with children have been the hardest hit in this growing economic crisis.
A vast number of children have lost access to school meals for breakfast and lunch, which play a key role in helping to feed needy children. My research finds that for families with kids, the rate of food insecurity tripled between March and April. A new study from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution found that nearly one in five mothers report that kids in their homes are not eating enough because they can’t afford food — the highest number on record.
In my career as a labor economist at Northwestern University (with a brief interlude at the Brookings Institution), I’ve studied at length the powerful economic impact of SNAP. The federal program stimulates the economy by providing families resources that they quickly spend at local grocery stores.
At the same time, SNAP functions as an investment in kids. My coauthored research shows that when children have access to sufficient resources to eat the food that they need, they grow up to be healthier, are more likely to finish school and are more economically stable when they’re adults.
By increasing SNAP benefits during this crisis, we’re not only alleviating kids’ suffering now, but we are also investing in the adults they will grow up to be.
During this pandemic, food pantry volunteers are doing extraordinary work to stay open and feed their neighbors. I’m proud to serve on the board of directors for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Chicago’s food bank, which is reporting a more than 70 percent increase in the number of people served by its network of partners here in Cook County in recent weeks.
But SNAP feeds people on an entirely different scale. For every meal provided by Feeding America’s national network of food banks, SNAP provides nine.
That makes perfect sense. Outside of emergencies, our first priority should be helping families afford the food they need from their local grocery stores. Spending on SNAP benefits creates a powerful economic multiplier effect to help businesses – and, in turn, other people – in the community.
Someday, hopefully in the not-so-distant future, we’ll have a vaccine for the coronavirus. But the economic impact of this crisis will last for years. The Congressional Budget Office predicts the unemployment rate will be above 10 percent through 2021. In some communities, the reality will be even more dire.
Our response must be equally sustained.
In previous coronavirus relief bills, Congress took some steps to alleviate hunger. It increased flexibility for some federal nutrition programs and authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow states to adopt what’s known as the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides food vouchers to families that have lost access to school meals. That program is funded only through the end of the school year, though.
Congress even increased SNAP benefits for some families, but that measure also sunsets far too soon and fails to help some of the most vulnerable American families. The USDA also recently announced a new food box program that will redirect commodity goods to food aid organizations.
It’s not enough. We haven’t utilized our most powerful anti-hunger tool available to us. In this unfathomable time of hunger in America, and in light of the largest spike in food prices in nearly 50 years, we must do so. Increasing SNAP benefits by 15 percent isn’t just the morally right thing to do — it’s a fiscally prudent strategy to help lift our economy out of its current shambles.
This shouldn’t be a political issue. All across our great nation, in every type of community, children like Tahari are going hungry.
Let’s feed them.
Diane Schanzenbach is the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor and the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She also serves on the board of directors for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.