Protracted effects of the pandemic are laying waste to larders in households reeling from job loss and eviction threats and, possibly, illness. State lawmakers should plow more money into providing food through federal block grants known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF.) Here’s another idea: Go on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) diet. Feed the family on $396 per month, the average 2019 monthly benefit for N.C. households with children.
Some 29 million of all adults in the U.S., 14 percent; 18 percent in households with children, reported that households lacked sufficient food in the past seven days, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. (Real-time data were collected December 9–21, 2020.)
In North Carolina, food insecurity gnawed at 13.9 percent of adults, well above the pre-pandemic rate of 3.4 percent over the 12 months of 2019. Eighty-four percent of respondents blamed money, not worries about safety or lack of transportation.
Black, Latino, and Indigenous adults were twice as likely to report food worries, 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, compared to 10 percent of White adults,.
Hunger costs individuals and society. Providing resources in utero and early childhood influences health and economic outcomes later in life. Inadequate nutrition puts people at higher risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, kidney disease, and hepatitis. These problems increase the risk of mortality from COVID-19. And, food-insecure adults are 50 percent more likely to show up in the ER; if admitted they stay in the hospital longer.
Our best hunger stabilizing policy, our only universal welfare program, is SNAP. Benefits far exceed costs: https://www.cbpp.org/research/snap-is-effective-and-efficient finds that every spent SNAP dollar feeds $1.70 into the economy.
N.C. SNAP participant numbers grew by 20 percent between February (pre-pandemic) and July/August 2020. Thirty-five percent are working families, typically earning low wages in restaurants and stores. This amounts to we-the-taxpayers subsidizing private, often highly profitable, firms that pay lower-than-living wages that include no benefits.
Right now, SNAP isn’t enough. Food banks are running out of food. Feeding America estimates a shortage of 6 billion to 8 billion meals over the coming year.
Time to re-think TANF’s allocations to basic assistance. North Carolina in 2019 spent $564 million federal and state TANF dollars; six percent went to provide cash assistance. (Most states spent about 20 percent of TANF funds on basic assistance for families with children; funds sometimes went to unrelated budget areas.) Funds also can support work-related services, including child care, administration, child welfare, and pre-K.
When people are forced to skip medications, rent, mortgage, car, or other payments in order to buy food, more people will need Medicaid. More people will land in hospitals. Poorly-nourished children suffer later in life.
Hunger hit me especially hard one day when a man showed up on my doorstep and asked for a loaf of bread. “Anything,” he said. My mom grew up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina and ate oatmeal three times a day during the Great Depression, she told me, after I asked why we never ate Quaker Oats. She’d puked oatmeal too many times.
That week, I put my family on the ‘poverty diet’ and wrote about the experience, donating my https://m.styleweekly.com/richmond/sharing-the-pain/Content?oid=1373441 honorarium to the food bank. My children called it the starvation diet. For us it was temporary. Hunger terrifies me, not only because of its effects, but because if we can’t fix this, who are we-the-people?
Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia where she worked as an economics writer. She co-edited Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, published in 2017 by the University of New Mexico Press; the anthology probes Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. She writes for Carolina Commentary. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com