Why hunger can grow even when poverty doesn’t

  • >> Jason DeParle, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-28 22:09:13 BdST

Volunteers at a food bank in Davis, Calif., handed out groceries on July 23, 2020. Food insecurity, as defined by the government, includes not only people who lack food but also those whose diets suffer from poor quality or whose access to food is so uncertain it causes them to worry. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

The news about the needy in recent weeks has at times seemed at odds with itself. As surveys find more people are going hungry, evidence suggests that increased federal aid, in response to the pandemic-driven rise in unemployment, has prevented a surge in poverty.

How could hunger soar if poverty does not? The possible explanations shed light on how people are faring in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And they bear on the deadlocked policy debate between Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration over whether to continue expanded jobless benefits, which expire in several days.

Here’s a guide to understanding hunger and poverty.

Poverty is measured annually; people eat daily.

In March, Congress approved more than $2 trillion in economic relief, including hundreds of billions of dollars to individuals in direct stimulus payments, nutritional assistance and bigger-than-normal unemployment checks. Multiple analyses have found significant antipoverty effects.

Using different models, the Urban Institute and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University both found the spending would prevent more than 10 million people from falling into poverty and keep poverty rates at about pre-crisis levels. (A paper by three economists found poverty rates actually declining.) Under the government’s most sophisticated measure, which varies with local costs of living, a family of four is typically deemed poor with an annual income below about $28,170.

The success in limiting the rise in poverty is an important projection. It suggests that help is reaching people who need it and saving them from worse distress. It is consistent with other research that shows that spending among the poorest households has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels and risen faster than spending among the affluent.

The aid “has been much more effective than I first thought,” said H. Luke Shaefer, who directs the poverty centre at the University of Michigan. “It was probably the most effective social safety net response we’ve ever had.”

But poverty is a measure of annual income, not whether the income arrives in time to keep people fed. The needy have suffered long delays in receiving some forms of aid, especially jobless benefits. As a result, many have had to trim their grocery lists.

While the benefits may lift annual incomes above the poverty line, many may be “food insecure” in the meantime. As Joseph Baker, a laid-off firearms instructor in Orlando, Florida, put it, “When you need to eat, you need to eat now.”

Most people who are food insecure are not poor.

Another reason food insecurity can rise when poverty does not is that most food-insecure households are not technically poor.

Of the 37 million people the government considered food insecure before the coronavirus pandemic, only 30% had incomes below the poverty threshold, according to Zachary Parolin, a Columbia University researcher.

Many more, about 48%, were “near poor,” meaning they had incomes up to twice the poverty line, or $56,340 in a typical city. More than 20% had incomes higher than that.

Many are low-wage workers with high expenses, like rent, child care or hospital bills. Others experience blows to household income, like divorce or family deaths. “Food insecurity is really sensitive to income jolts,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

Food insecurity is a broad measure. As defined by the government, it includes not only people who lack food but also those whose diets suffer from poor quality or whose access to food is so uncertain it causes them to worry.

But the nonpoor also dominate a more stringent definition of need, “very low food security” — in layman’s terms, hunger. Nearly two-thirds of the households with such severe food problems before the pandemic were not poor, Parolin found.

Usually, trends in poverty and hunger move in the same direction. But in an event as extraordinary as the pandemic, which has pushed food prices to the highest level in nearly 50 years, the pattern may have changed, causing food insecurity to rise even if poverty does not.

Income volatility hurts families, even if poverty rates do not increase.

Changes in income are difficult for the needy to manage, and the pandemic has caused volatile swings. Middle-class families can feed themselves with savings or credit cards. Low-income households have fewer ways to cope when short of cash.

Even before the pandemic, researchers found that volatility hurts the poor regardless of income level. Lisa Gennetian, an economist at Duke University, found that behavioural problems increased in schools at the end of the food stamp monthly benefit cycle, as groceries dwindled and tensions rose.

“Having a low income is bad,” Gennetian said, “but having a low income that yo-yos is worse.”

The growth of ‘near poverty’ can increase food insecurity.

The official definition of poverty is an all-or-nothing measure. It indicates whether a family is below the line — $28,170 for that typical family of four — but not how far below.

A pandemic that makes a poor family poorer could increase food insecurity even if it does not change the poverty rate. So could a crisis that increases the number of “near poor,” or people with incomes up to twice the poverty line.

Parolin found that the share of near poor who experience food insecurity (22%) was not greatly different than the rate among the poor (29%). A crisis that swells their ranks could increase food insecurity.

Many immigrants cannot get aid.

Hardship appears to be rising especially fast among immigrants, for at least two reasons.

Immigrants in the country illegally are barred from most government aid, so the safety net expansion has done them little good. They number about 11 million, and about 4 million children who are American citizens live with them in mixed-status families. That means a lot of people are facing the crisis without government help.

In addition, the Trump administration, through its new “public charge” rule, is dissuading legal immigrants from seeking aid. The rule allows the government to count the receipt of benefits as a negative factor when immigrants seek permanent residency. It has spread broad fear and confusion, leaving some immigrants reluctant to seek help. While poverty projections should account for such rules, it is not clear if they adequately do so in such unusual times.

Among those caught between need and fear is a Houston factory worker named Mariana, who asked that her last name be kept private because she feared government reprisals. She quit her job before the pandemic to have a baby and cannot find work.

Though she is in the country legally, she hesitated to apply for food stamps because of the public charge rule. She relented only after running short on food, when a food bank suggested she apply only for her three American children. “Now my kids are eating better, but I’m very afraid,” she said. “I don’t plan to renew the assistance.”

Food insecurity has grown, but how much is unclear.

Data on food insecurity during the pandemic comes from four surveys: three by private researchers and one by the Census Bureau. All suggest elevated hardship, with the largest problems among people of color and families with children. But the degree of the increase is in dispute.

A recent survey by the Urban Institute found about 18% of adults were food insecure, up from about 11% by the government’s pre-pandemic count. Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University who analysed weekly census surveys, puts food insecurity at about 25%, more than twice the pre-crisis level. Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution looking at severe problems among households with children, found the levels had risen nearly sixfold.

Some surveys find hardship easing since early in the pandemic; others do not.

At least three issues cloud the results. One is that current surveys have low response rates — less than 5% in the census surveys. That means respondents may not reflect the country overall.

In addition, data collection has moved from the phone to internet questionnaires. Any change in methodology could skew results, and people embarrassed by their shortage of food may be more likely to disclose it online. (That would suggest food insecurity before the crisis was higher than previously known.)

The number of questions and their wording has also changed, making it hard to compare the results to pre-crisis benchmarks.

Scott Winship, an aide to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, agreed that hunger had risen, but he said the most dire findings exaggerated the degree. They relied on “emergency surveys of much lower quality” than those used before the pandemic, he said, and the results showed much more hardship than in the Great Recession, which raised “an explosion of red flags.”

Because food insecurity measures whether people worry as well as whether they run out of food, he noted, responses in the pandemic might be skewed. Roughly 20% of the people who said they had insufficient food cited noneconomic factors, like fear of going to the store or shortages on the shelves, the census figures show.

But Schanzenbach argues that the sheer volume of evidence coming from four separate surveys fortifies her conclusion that hardship has increased, as do lines outside food banks and a surge in food stamp applications. “Every way you cut the data points in the same direction — that food hardship is substantially elevated,” she said.

She likens measures of poverty and food insecurity to blood pressure and temperature. “They are each important metrics, and sometimes one goes up and the other doesn’t,” she said. “We’ve got to monitor both.”

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