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Households are taking a hit as pandemic aid runs out, inflation continues

Forty million people in the United States struggle with household expenses, and just over 25 million people say they sometimes or often don’t get enough to eat, according to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey.

The survey is designed to collect data on households’ experiences during the pandemic and its economic recovery. The US Census Bureau, working with other federal agencies to produce the data, began the surveys in April 2020.

The most recent poll, conducted February 1-13, also showed that 16% of respondents said it was very likely they would be evicted in the next two months and 23.7% said it was quite likely. It was up slightly from December, when 14.3% said it was very likely they would be evicted in that time frame and 28% said it was quite likely.

The data reflects that Americans continue to struggle with inflation, a struggle exacerbated for some by the disappearance of pandemic relief supplies across the country. Even though inflation is moderating, it is still high. The consumer price index, released on Feb. 14, showed that the price of meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 0.7% for the month, and eggs rose 8.5% over the same period of time. The Federal Reserve continues to hike rates in a bid to bring down inflation, which it said “remains elevated.”

Meanwhile, a large portion of the pandemic relief funds have been allocated, with 87 percent of American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated already by December. Unwinding pandemic Medicaid coverage will likely leave millions without coverage. At the start of the pandemic, Congress provided a temporary increase in benefits for recipients of SNAP, the federal nutrition assistance program, but that ends on March 1. When that happens, the average person will get about $90 less in SNAP benefits a month, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

SNAP emergency benefits about to expire

As the emergency benefits of SNAP wear off, the effects could eventually show up in Pulse data, said Lauren Bauer, an economics researcher at the Brookings Institution and associate director of the Hamilton Project.

Current Pulse data shows that since expanded COVID-19 unemployment benefits ended in the fall of 2021, fewer people are relying on unemployment insurance to buy food. When asked how they had paid for food over the past seven days, 13 million said they used SNAP benefits compared to 1.8 million who said they used unemployment benefits. That’s up from the 12.7 million who trusted SNAP in January and 12.1 million in December. In the survey from February 17 to March 1, 2021, before the end of extended unemployment benefits, 11.9 million people used unemployment benefits to buy food and 10.8 million used SNAP benefits.

“…What part of the safety net is still providing families with a material amount of income given all that has gone away? And right now SNAP is the main program doing that. Everything else comes from income, loans, savings spending, etc. Bauer explained.

Families of four at 200 percent of the poverty line are an example of who has the most to lose when emergency SNAP benefits disappear, Bauer said.

“It’s the households that would normally, via the formula, lose 30 cents on every dollar as you climb higher and higher in the income distribution that will see the biggest hit. Those are typically low-wage workers,” she said.

In addition to these dwindling benefits, Republican state lawmakers are targeting food stamps in a number of ways, such as adding stricter job requirements and limiting what food qualifies. In Congress, House Republicans are using this year’s farm bill to restart a discussion about SNAP’s work requirements and waivers that exempt some recipients from certain SNAP rules.

Economic pains in the South

Southern states showed higher rates of financial stress in surveys collected in February, January and December. Pulse data show that rates of food shortages were highest in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana in February, and they were highest in January in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. Mississippi, Kentucky and Texas were the highest in December. Difficulty paying ordinary household expenses was highest in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana in February, followed by West Virginia and Kentucky, and in January, people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida reported having the greatest difficulty with these expenses.

“In general, many of these measures of benefit generosity are lower in the US South, and it would make sense that when federal expansion expires, they revert to a less generous state,” said Alex Bell, a postdoctoral fellow at the California Policy Lab of the University of California.

Michael Leachman, senior vice president for state tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a lack of Medicaid expansion in many Southern states and tougher eligibility requirements for benefits may help explain some of the data. With pandemic aid ending, Americans across the country will feel the pain of losing those resources, he said.

“The other provisions that were put in place during the height of the pandemic have made a huge difference in terms of child poverty and other forms of hardship that people are experiencing,” he said. “…About 90% of [state ARPA funds] it has already been awarded and has made a huge difference in the lives of the people who have been particularly harmed, but with its closure, even though the job market is relatively strong, the effects of the pandemic persist in all ways.

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