September 10, 2021
Earlier this month, we got one more indication that government can work and that we, as a nation, can take on our big problems.
Despite the catastrophic impact of the pandemic government programs prevented millions of men, women, and children from going hungry. According to a recently released US Department of Agriculture report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2020, the numbers of Americans unable to feed themselves adequately remained unchanged. This despite the large number of people whose income was reduced or eliminated as the nation reeled trying to combat COVID-19.
“An estimated 89.5 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2020, with access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (10.5 percent, unchanged from 10.5 percent in 2019) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 3.9 percent with very low food security (not significantly different from 4.1 percent in 2019). Very low food security is the more severe range of food insecurity where one or more household members experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns at times during the year because of limited money and other resources for obtaining food. Although the prevalence of food insecurity and very low food security for all households remained unchanged from 2019, some subgroups experienced increases in food insecurity and very low food security. For example, among children, food insecurity and very low food security increased significantly from 2019. Children and adults were food insecure in 7.6 percent of U.S. households with children in 2020 (up from 6.5 percent in 2019); very low food security among children was 0.8 percent (up from 0.6 percent in 2019).”
Jason DeParle, writing for The New York Times, provided a powerful picture of how impactful the Federal Government’s programs have been using the more modest efforts undertaken during the Great Recession. . “The overall pattern — of hunger constrained — contrasted sharply with the country’s experience during 2008, when nearly 13 million additional Americans became food insecure at the start of the Great Recession. Last year, 38.3 million Americans lacked food security, a level far below the 50.2 million Americans in that situation at the Great Recession’s peak.”
This report adds one more data point to a growing body of evidence about our ability to improve people’s quality of life. “Researchers at the University of Michigan, analyzing Census Bureau surveys, found the 2021 stimulus checksbrought immediate reductions in food hardship. Most recently, a study by researchers at Columbia University found the same pattern after the introduction of the child tax credit in July, but only among households with children — the group eligible for the monthly payments. ‘We now have definitive evidence that food hardship is responsive to government aid,’ said H. Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan researcher who studied the stimulus checks. ‘The effect is crystal clear.’”
Nor can philanthropy do what only government can do. Eric Cooper, a food bank in Austin, Texas, told the Times that “The crisis reinforced both the financial fragility of the average household and the limited role those private charities can play. It was the federal expansions that pulled people out of our parking lots and into grocery stores, which is where people should get their food. We’re so small — the safety net is much larger.”
Hunger has not yet been eliminated but that is not an argument for government inaction.
The questions before us should not longer be about what government can do but whether we have a shared responsibility for each other. We can learn many lessons from the months of struggle with Covid. We have learned that government works. That it can improve lives and protect people from harm.
Do we now have the willingness to do what can be done? Are we able to comfortably walk away, allowing those struggling continue to struggle, because we think they need to be responsible for solving their own problems? Are we willing to walk away because we might need to pay more in taxes? Do we trust those in need to use the funds for what they are intended, and are those of us with the means willing to make the personal sacrifices to pay for it?