Last week, the Urban Institute released an extraordinary report estimating that, because of government interventions during the pandemic, the US poverty rate had plummeted. These interventions included huge expansions of the the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in which states were allowed to implement waivers giving each family on food stamps the maximum allowable for a family of their size, rather than the smaller amounts they would normally qualify for on a sliding scale.
The importance of SNAP and other nutritional programs, as well as broader safety net programs and imaginative federal and state anti-poverty efforts, has been made abundantly clear all over the country this past 18 months.
Remember the early days of the pandemic? Cities like Las Vegas, which had basically shut down overnight and seen upwards of a quarter to a third of their workers suddenly lose their employment, saw vehicle breadlines at food banks that snaked along nearby roads for miles. Had America’s economically vulnerable been forced to rely on stretched-thin private charities and food-distribution volunteers from the spring of 2020 through to today, there would have been a hunger epidemic of staggering proportions. As it is, there is still an epidemic of “food insecurity,” with the Census Household Pulse Survey finding that nearly a quarter of white families with children and approaching 40 percent of Latino and African American families with children were food insecure at the height of the pandemic last summer.
Luckily, however, most of that food insecurity hasn’t translated to actual malnutrition or long-term hunger. Instead, in a rare instance of congressional sanity and legislative clarity, the political leaders of both parties, faced with cascading hunger on the scale that America saw in the early months of the pandemic, worked out a series of compromises that temporarily bulked up the food stamp program.
But while the American Rescue Plan extended the food stamp expansion through September of this year, come autumn millions of Americans will sees their benefits reduced. During a period when we are also seeing expanded unemployment payments eliminated and eviction protections whittled away, many will once more be vulnerable to hunger.
And that’s where the states have a key role to play.
In recent months, Western states have been at the forefront of efforts to extend an array of nutritional assistance programs to poor residents. While anti-hunger organizations such as the Food Research and Action Center have been pushing efforts, so far without success, to get Congress to enact a universal meals program for all K-12 public school students in the country, California has recently enacted a universal meals program all of its own. Other states are following in its wake: Maine’s governor has signed similar legislation into law, and others in the Northeast are likely to go down the same road. On the west coast, legislators in Oregon and Washington are hard at work crafting similar bills, according to anti-poverty advocates I have spoken with recently.
The efforts to tackle hunger out West go beyond interventions in the K-12 schools, however. California, along with Oregon and Washington, and also Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and New Mexico, are all now moving legislation to make it easier for college students to access food stamps, and are also investing in a broad array of anti-hunger programs on campuses throughout the region. This is important, because federal food stamp legislation specifically excludes college students from the program, on the often-misguided assumption that students can fall back on help from their parents. The Trump administration repeatedly rejected waiver requests from California that would have allowed the state to more easily enroll students in SNAP.
Although the federal legislation contains 13 exemptions that food stamp advocates have been able to use to push for broader access on college campuses, such work is labor-intensive and involves a case worker taking up each applicant’s case individually. “California has pushed it as far as we can by implementing these 13 exemptions,” says Jessica Bartholow, chief of staff to state Senator Nancy Skinner, whose office has led efforts to expand eligibility rules. However, because of the cumbersome process of accessing these exemptions, Bartholow worries that “we have been missing a lot of people.”
Now, however, state-level legislators, with the support of US congressional representatives and senators from California and Washington, are looking to do an end-run around the federal restrictions by codifying the ability to easily access these exemptions into state law, as well as pushing legislators in D.C. to enact federal legislation to simplify access to food stamps.
The anti-hunger efforts continue in other areas as well. Legal noncitizen immigrants, as well as undocumented residents—who have been left out of one federal relief package after the next—have also begun receiving nutritional assistance in Western states. California has already created a CalFresh program aimed specifically at legal immigrants; it serves 35,000 people a year. Now, after a series of negotiations between the governor’s office and progressive legislators, it is set to expand this with a $30 million program to serve as least some of the state’s estimated 2 million undocumented residents.
California has also started to increase the aid that it provides to undocumented women who are pregnant with their first babies. And Washington has set up a system to distribute emergency assistance to undocumented families with children.
Around the country, GOP legislators are rolling back safety net expansions that have kept millions of Americans financially afloat since the spring of 2020. The Western states, with California out front, are, for now, choosing a different path. The question is, with California’s gubernatorial recall election less than six weeks away, and polling indicating that it could be a close one, will the Golden State continue to take the lead in crafting more inclusive anti-poverty and anti-hunger efforts? Or will it, too, start rolling back efforts that have only just recently started to bear fruit?