Jonathan P. Baird: Increasing hunger is an unspoken pandemic reality

For the Monitor
Published: 11/15/2020 6:40:05 AM

With all eyes having been fixed on the titanic battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, less attention has gone to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. That is tragic because, of late, the pandemic has been spiking. Even if we pay it less attention, the pandemic does not quit.

One pandemic-related problem that deserves far more attention is food insecurity. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of American households struggling to put enough food on the table.

According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey data collected in October, 10.9% of all adults in America reported that their households sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat in the last seven days.

That number represents a big increase over the pre-pandemic rate. The Agriculture Department had previously conducted a survey in 2019 that found 3.7% of adults reported that their households had not had enough to eat at some point over the full 12 months of 2019.

There has been some attention paid to the loss of employer-connected health insurance for millions during the pandemic. The issue of possible repeal of Obamacare by the U.S. Supreme Court was prominently publicized during the Amy Coney Barrett hearings.

The economic fallout for food, housing, and employment should get much more coverage.

In the context of the pandemic, I have seen almost nothing in the media about the Trump administration’s attack on the food stamp program (also known as SNAP). You would think the threat of increasing hunger in a pandemic would prompt positive steps such as raising food stamp benefits. That has not happened even with the virus again surging at a rate of over 100,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths every day. Daily infection tallies are setting records.

The Trump administration’s failure on the food front was highlighted by a recent federal court decision in October. In the case Bread for the City v. Department of Agriculture, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the Federal Court in Washington, D.C., blocked a rule change that would have eliminated food stamps for almost 700,000 recipients. Nineteen states, the District of Columbia, and New York City had sued to block the rule change.

The Trump administration had targeted one group of food stamp recipients: non-disabled, working-age adults without dependents. This group is currently limited to receiving benefits for three months in a 36-month period unless they are working or are enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours in a month.

Under present rules states had flexibility to waive work mandates. Congress had suspended these mandates in the Food Stamp program as part of coronavirus relief. When Judge Howell asked the Department of Agriculture lawyers how many Americans would have been denied benefits if the rule change was in effect during the pandemic, she wrote they were “icily silent.”

In her stinging ruling, Judge Howell wrote: “The final rule at issue in this litigation radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice leaving states scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.”

Judge Howell found the rule change was “arbitrary and capricious” and she felt the agency did not adequately explain how the rule comported with federal statutes. She did not think the change made any sense.

According to government statistics, there were 2.9 million of these recipients in 2018 and nearly 74% of them were not employed. States have had the ability to waive the work requirements for areas where unemployment was at least 10% or if there is an insufficient number of jobs as defined by the Department of Labor. The new rule would have removed that flexibility.

I would note the harshness of a rule that already limits eligibility to only three out of 36 months.

The rule change is one of three outstanding efforts that the Trump administration has made to revise and shrink the food stamp program. They want to change categorical eligibility rules that could cut off an additional 3 million people. A further rule change would alter how allowance for utility expenses are calculated. The agency is still working on these rule changes.

The Urban Institute released a study that indicated the combined impact of these rules would cut 3.7 million people from food stamps in an average month. The changes would also reduce benefits for millions more and would result in 982,000 students losing automatic access to free or reduced-price school meals.

In the middle of a raging pandemic, with massive unemployment, a looming eviction and foreclosure crisis, and almost incalculable financial hardship, you have to wonder about the rationality of government officials promoting large cuts in the food stamp program.

You could call it class war on the poor or just meanness. This is also happening at a time when grocery prices have shot up and many more people are relying on food banks.

Since the end of the virus is definitely not around the corner and because economic hardship is an ongoing fact of life for millions, shrinking the safety net now is a Marie Antoinette move. With food prices rising, a new coronavirus relief package should feature an across the board 15% increase in food stamp benefits. In the 21st century we need to make hunger un-American.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at

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