Federal aid offset negative economic effects
New data show that food insecurity among New Hampshire households has decreased over the past three years, with federal relief programs helping to offset the negative effects of economic upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The US Department of Agriculture surveys households each year to understand the prevalence of food insecurity across the country. The USDA defines food insecurity as when households, at least sometime during the year, are unable to obtain sufficient food for one or more adults or children in a household due to insufficient money or other resources. At the state level, these USDA data are aggregated into three-year periods to have sufficient data for more reliable estimates. The latest data, covering the years 2019-21, was released in September 2022.
During the 2019-21 period, food insecurity in New Hampshire affected an estimated 30,000 households, or 5.4 percent of all households in the Granite State. This share is a significant decrease from both the 7.8 percent estimated for the previous three-year period, covering 2016-18, and from about one in 10 households that are food insecure following the increase in food insecurity during the Great Recession and early of the subsequent long, slow recovery.
This decrease occurred despite unemployment in New Hampshire rising during the worst periods of the Covid-19 crisis, and nearly half of New Hampshire households lost employment income between March and July 2020.
As with poverty, widespread food insecurity was likely prevented due to expanded federal aid programs during the pandemic, as well as government aid and charity.
Several key program expansions were aimed at reducing food insecurity in pandemic-related legislation, including for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the free and reduced-price school meal program .
In addition, the Pandemic EBT program was created to provide meals to students who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals at school, but were unable to attend school due to the pandemic. These targeted food assistance programs, which reached one-third of households with children in New Hampshire, were complemented by expanded income support programs, such as increased unemployment benefits, increased tax credits for child care expenses, multiple rounds of economic impact payments, and expanded Child Tax Credit, which delivered $320.7 million in advance, monthly payments in the second half of 2021 to eligible New Hampshire households with children.
While New Hampshire maintained low food insecurity relative to the nation, these declines were not unique to the Granite State, indicating the robust effects of federal policies. Throughout the country, food insecurity decreased by 1.3 percent between the period 2016-18 and the period 2019-21. While New Hampshire had the lowest estimated rate of food insecurity of any state in the nation, it did not have the lowest estimated rate among states for households with very low food insecurity, a more severe form of food insecurity.
More detailed national data also provide additional insights into different effects on food insecurity.
In 2021, households with children, with people living alone or as single parents with children, with householders who identify as black or Hispanic, or with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty line were all more likely to be food insecure than households in total. Between 2020 and 2021, however, food insecurity decreased nationwide for households with children, for married couples and single female households with children, for households with poverty-level incomes and those below 185 percent of the poverty line, and for households with households that identified as both black and non-black – Spanish speaking.
Nationally, food insecurity increased for households without children, for women living alone, and for older adults living alone. These changes in food insecurity between 2020 and 2021 suggest that targeted assistance programs, such as the expanded child tax credit, were effective in alleviating food insecurity among the households they reached, but the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic may still have increased food insecurity among other households.
These recently released food security data from the USDA and separate data from the US Census Bureau on poverty and income, also released in September 2022, provide clear indications that the targeted assistance programs for lower-income households helped alleviate hardship for individuals and families in a very difficult time. Rapid action by governments to respond to the Covid-19 crisis reduced the negative effects of the pandemic in a much more robust and inclusive way than the response to the Great Recession, helping to promote a fairer recovery.
Phil Sletten is director of research at the NH Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent nonprofit organization that researches, develops and promotes public policy that promotes economic opportunity and prosperity for New Hampshire residents. It shares these articles with partners in the Granite State News Collaborative.