The coronavirus pandemic has exposed huge inequities in our society, from a lack of affordable housing where people can safely “shelter-in-place” to enormous gaps in our health-care system. But one issue still hidden in the shadows is hunger.
We have all been told to limit trips to the grocery store, and we have all seen the grocery store lines that stretch around the block. But what about people who cannot afford to buy enough groceries to adequately feed their families?
There are millions of Americans sheltering in place with bare cupboards, and in need of further help from Congress and the federal government. They include families who are struggling to feed children who normally receive meals at schools, and seniors and people with disabilities.
Anti-poverty organizations, including Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS), call on Congress and the federal government to take swift action to fix the broken systems that perpetuate hunger in our community and across the U.S.
One of the greatest tools for fighting hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is also known as “food stamps.” Unfortunately, SNAP benefits are meager and often inaccessible to the people who need them.
Although Congress acted to authorize supplemental SNAP benefits during this crisis, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unfortunately chose not to give this supplement to the poorest households. These are households that were already receiving the maximum SNAP benefit amount because of their extreme poverty. This means that the roughly 40% of households who are the poorest of the poor received no additional help even though the coronavirus has caused unexpected expenses for everybody.
The needs of low-income college students have also gone overlooked in this crisis, as many are ineligible for stimulus payments because they do not file their own taxes. To make matters worse, low-income college students are ineligible for SNAP unless they are working 20 hours per week, or meet another exemption. Pennsylvania and other states have requested that the USDA waive this requirement for college students during this crisis, but the USDA has denied that request. CLS urges Congress and the USDA to make low-income college students eligible for SNAP benefits, so they and their families do not go hungry.
We also must take all steps that we can to fight hunger to help workers who have been laid off or who have lost hours due to the crisis. Congress can do that by increasing SNAP benefits by 15%, both to help families hurting now and to boost the economy. SNAP is a great economic stimulus because it is spent right away on food, generating more economic activity that will benefit us all. Congress should also raise the minimum benefit amount from $16 to $30 per month, a policy that would especially help seniors and people with disabilities, who are most likely to receive the minimum benefit.
Congress can also stop a huge problem before it starts. Any day now, the USDA may finalize federal rules that will force people to choose between food and other basic necessities. One proposed rule would require households to have an even lower income to get SNAP and would reinstate an “asset test,” preventing people who need food assistance from saving for crises. The other rule would change how utility expenses are calculated, which would cut SNAP benefits by $40-$50 per month for most Pennsylvania families. Congress should halt both proposed rules, which would devastate already struggling individuals and families.
Congress and the USDA should act now to draw hunger out of the shadows and ensure that people who are struggling to get by are able to survive this crisis.
Louise Hayes is a supervising attorney in the health and independence unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. email@example.com