Robust policies reduce food insecurity and child poverty

In September 2022, the US Department of Agriculture released their annual “Food Security in the US” report for the 2021 calendar year. Food insecurity, identified as a household level social and economic condition of lack of consistent access to enough healthful food for an active healthy life, was present in 10.2% of national households throughout 2021, similar to 2020 (10.5%). However, when looking at households with children under 18 years, the 2021 national prevalence (12.5%) was significantly lower than 2020 (14.8%). Despite being higher than the national average, sharp decreases were also seen among Black, non-Hispanic households with children (from 21.7% in 2020 to 19.8% in 2021), and Hispanic households with children (from 17.2% in 2020 to 16.2% in 2021). In addition, a deeper look into households with children under 6 years showed a significant decrease in food insecurity prevalence from 15.3% in 2020 to 12.9% in 2021. 

Concomitantly, the US Census Bureau released the 2021 poverty data. The Supplemental Poverty Measure for Children (SPM), which takes into account the effects of tax credits, stimulus payments, and other public assistance programs such as food and housing assistance, showed a significant reduction from 9.7% in 2020 to 5.2% in child poverty in 2021 – almost cut in half! Racial gaps in child poverty were also narrowed significantly. The gap in the poverty rate between white, non-Hispanic children and Black children fell by 51 percent, and between white, non-Hispanic children and Hispanic children fell by 37 percent.

These data should come as no surprise given the robust policy measures enacted in 2021 to reduce child poverty and economic hardship. The enactment of monthly Child Tax Credit payments, boosts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, universal school meals in districts across the country, investments in emergency housing resources, and more put resources into the hands of families with children. Unfortunately, these expansions were only temporary and research suggests that unless our nation’s leaders act swiftly to restore key investments, the promising news of 2021 may be short lived. Data from 2022 focused on families with young children have started to show how the expiration of these benefits is linked to increasing reports of families struggling to afford basic needs, such as food and housing. For example, a mixed methods study from Children’s HealthWatch about the Child Tax Credit (CTC) found that with the expiration of the expanded CTC, families again had difficulty meeting their basic needs. These more nuanced studies are very important to fill in gaps in knowledge and more deeply understand the experience of families with children.

All measures tell the same story: Poverty and food insecurity in the United States is intricately related with policy choices. The COVID-19 pandemic provided us with an eye-opening natural experiment that showed adequate government action has a profound positive impact on the lives of people, especially children. Expansions in benefits for the SNAP, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, creation of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Program (P-EBT) to provide resources to families to buy food as replacement for meals at school and in child care, issuance of universal Economic Impact Payments, increased housing assistance and unemployment insurance benefits, and, expansions in the Child Tax Credit, all helped millions of children and their families to be food secure. The evidence is clear: these policies work for reducing hardship and promoting equity. As a country, we must swiftly enact bold policy solutions for ensuring all children have the opportunity to thrive.