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Could Covid-19 finally end hunger in America?

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A peculiar thing happened last year during the Covid-19 pandemic: As large swaths of the U.S. economy shut down and unemployment skyrocketed, hunger rates held steady and poverty rates went down.

From the pandemic’s earliest days, Washington showed it had learned the lessons of past crises like the 2008 financial collapse, when policymakers responded with too little too late to help people get by and the economic recovery was hampered as a result. So as the country faced a once-in-a-century pandemic and the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Congress threw trillions at the double disaster, sending unprecedented levels of aid to American families and businesses.

Soon, a pattern was evident, thanks in part to real-time monitoring by the U.S. Census Bureau: When Washington doled out federal aid, hardship declined. When Washington let aid expire, hardship ticked back up.

In essence, the pandemic triggered a country-wide policy experiment aimed at keeping families fed and financially afloat. There have been big increases in food stamps and unemployment benefits. Three rounds of stimulus checks. Universal free meals at schools and new grocery benefits for kids who are learning virtually, or out of school during the summer. Hundreds of millions of food boxes flooded into churches and other nonprofits.

The latest tranche of aid may carry the biggest bang yet: six monthly child tax credit payments that will be dispersed through the end of the year. The first two rounds of payments that went out in July and August fueled a dramatic reduction in the rate of American households with kids who report sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the past week, according to the Census Bureau.

All that aid appears to have worked.

“Lo and behold, if you give people money, they are less poor,” said Elaine Waxman, an economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has closely monitored how low-income households have fared throughout the crisis.

Importantly, much of the aid from Washington during the pandemic has been direct cash assistance. That’s been a dramatic change for a country that’s long preferred to help those in need with non-cash aid like food stamps, health care coverage or subsidized housing, all targeted at low-income households. Doling out in-kind benefits generally requires paperwork and bureaucracy. Sending people checks or direct deposits is relatively simple — and quick.

Data shows that these changes have had an impact. While anti-hunger advocates and some economists had feared food insecurity rates had increased during the pandemic, USDA reported this week that the overall rate was unchanged in 2020 — a remarkable feat after an unprecedented shock.

The picture isn’t unclouded: The new data also shows that the food insecurity gap between Black and white households widened in 2020. But advocates are now hopeful the pandemic response will actually drive rates down below pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021, leaving millions of families better off than before the crisis. By comparison, it took the country more than a decade to rebound from a big spike in food insecurity in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

What’s more, thanks to the tracking by the Census Bureau, we know how Americans are using the aid: The No. 1 thing households report buying with the money is food, followed by utilities and other necessities.

All of this has some policy makers wondering: If we know what drives food insecurity down, why not drive it down to zero? Why not end hunger in the wealthiest country on earth?

“We shouldn’t have to wait for a once-in-a-century pandemic to think boldly about addressing fundamental injustices in our society,” said House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the most vocal anti-hunger advocate in Congress, in an interview. “We all ought to want to fix this. There’s enough reason to compel the left and the right and everybody in between to hang their hat on a bold initiative to eradicate hunger, once and for all, in this country.”

But ending hunger is not something Congress has been particularly focused on. Despite periodic attempts to tackle the problem, policy in Washington tends to get mired in deep-seated debates over the size and role of government. Is it Washington’s job to make sure everyone can afford to feed their families?

Thanks to Covid-19, the question facing policymakers now is a little different. The pandemic has shown us how to slash hunger in America. So do we want to? At what cost? Is it more expensive to end hunger or live with it?

The fact that hunger persists in the United States, the richest country on earth, has always been a tragic paradox. Economists have lots of explanations for why millions of Americans struggle to access enough food, even when the economy is doing well. Chronically low wages mean that workers, even working full-time, can’t cover the basic costs of living. Long before the pandemic hit, millions of low-income workers were fighting to survive each month, living paycheck to paycheck, skipping meals to save money to........

© Politico

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