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Listen: The Virus Is Peaking, but Help Is Going Away

And that’s a broad measure. We can think about people reporting they don’t have enough to eat. And similarly, we’ve seen levels of people in the United States not having enough to eat that are unconscionable. They’re higher than anything we’ve seen on record. I just pulled the most recent numbers and 14 percent of people report to the Census Bureau that, over the first half of October, they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat in their house. That’s a lot of kids.

Wells: As I’m listening to you, rage is welling up inside of me. Why is this happening?

Schanzenbach: When it comes to kids, two big things have shifted. One is schools and the other is family money that allows them to buy food. The question of schools is hard, right? We need to get the virus under control and there’s all sorts of moving parts. That’s a hard problem to solve. What is not a hard problem to solve is feeding people. We can give them money. We can give them food stamps, what is now called the SNAP program. There’s a lot of very straightforward policy solutions that could be implemented.

And I should be quick to say that we’ve done some of those. [The CARES Act created] the Pandemic EBT program, which provides families money for school meals that they missed. We’ve been able to study it and we can show that it reduces food hardship as experienced by kids. That’s a really good program. We were worried that Congress wasn’t going to reauthorize it, but in the nick of time, they decided that they would reauthorize it through this year.

What’s staggering is these numbers would be even worse if it weren’t for what we’re already doing. Just fundamentally, this is not hard to solve. It just takes money.

Wells: How much did the CARES Act help?

Schanzenbach: That’s a hard question to answer because so much other stuff was going on with the economy. It’s hard to know how much worse things would be if it weren’t for the CARES Act, but we can say they made some really smart policy decisions. That initial boost to unemployment insurance, that extra $600 a week, really made a big difference. Another policy change that they made was they increased SNAP benefits to people who weren’t already getting the maximum benefit. And it also gave states—this is not very exciting, but, boy, it makes a difference on the ground—they gave states flexibility to concentrate only on enrolling new families who were newly eligible for SNAP and not processing renewals and things like that.

I wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution that tried to understand, given how much we’ve spent, why is there still so much suffering? We came up with three reasons. The first is that aside from that unemployment insurance bump, the rest of the benefits just weren’t all that generous. The second was: many of the benefits came with delays. At the beginning, people had to really wait to get their unemployment insurance. And the third is that there are a lot of holes in our safety net. A lot of families suffering food insecurity and hunger didn’t lose their jobs, but they lost income anyway. They lost shifts or they lost gigs. But because they didn’t lose their job, in most places, they’re not getting unemployment insurance. They’re just having to weather the shock without any additional public benefits.

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