Food banks in many states across the US are bracing for a surge in demand for food aid due to Republican governors ending federal extended unemployment benefits early in a move that will hit millions of American families.
Several states across the US have started to voluntarily end federal extended unemployment benefits, as Republican governors in at least 25 states have announced intentions to do so.
Missouri, Alaska, Iowa and Mississippi were the first states to cancel federal unemployment aid on 12 June, with the rest of the states following suit through 10 July, several weeks before federal benefits guaranteed by the American Rescue Plan are scheduled to expire on 6 September.
The cuts will end or reduce benefits for about 3.9 million unemployed workers.
Food insecurity among Americans surged during the coronavirus pandemic and has remained significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. According to US Census Bureau data, more than 19.3 million adults said in late May their households didn’t get enough food to eat sometimes in often in the previous seven days, compared to 8.5 million adults who didn’t get enough to eat at some point through all of 2019.
“We are still distributing about a million to a million and a half more meals each month than we did pre-Covid,” said Teresa Schryver, advocacy manager for the St Louis Area Food Bank in Bridgeton, Missouri, which provides services for residents in Missouri and nearby Illinois. “We might see a spike again in July and August as we’re losing the unemployment benefits here in Missouri, so we might be doing 2m meals again for a couple of months.”
The food bank also expects a surge in requests for help in applying for Snap benefits – often known as food stamps – as the unemployment benefits expire. According to Schryver, as the public health crisis in the US over coronavirus is settling down due to a high level of vaccinations, the economic and other tied crises are likely to take much longer for people to recover from.
“When the great recession happened in early 2008, 2009, that really impacted the work we do and the people we serve. We saw a huge increase in food insecurity during that time and it took us 10 years to get back to food insecurity rates from before the recession,” added Schryver. “We hope it’s not going to take us 10 years to get our food insecurity rates back down to pre-pandemic levels, but that’s the kind of timeline we’re looking at right now.”
Wendi Jones of Independence, Missouri, lost her job at a local school district in January and her family has relied on food banks as she is still going through arbitration to start receiving unemployment benefits. Every time she has tried to contact Missouri’s department of labor to receive an update, she is told there are still delays due to the pandemic, and she is upset Missouri is cancelling federal extended benefits while delays and backlogs that are preventing her from receiving benefits have remained unresolved.
“Going from a two-income family, to one income with no severance or unemployment has been so hard,” said Jones, whose family doesn’t qualify for food assistance through Snap because of her husband’s income. “We’ve been able to navigate food pantries in our area but the most important pantry, the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, ended at the end of May. That has been another hard blow because now I have to pay for milk, cheese and such and it’s not cheap … I have no idea what we’re going to do.”
Florida food banks are preparing for more need also.
“With the unemployment benefits level being reduced, it will no doubt put hardship on a large population here in central Florida. It is impossible to say how much of an impact, but, it cannot be positive,” said Dave Krepcho, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida in Orlando. The extra $300 in federal extended unemployment benefits are scheduled to end early in Florida on 26 June.
“We can see a correlation between an addition or elimination of a household financial benefit,” said Thomas Mantz, the CEO and president of Feeding Tampa Bay, which provides a variety of food relief services to communities in the Tampa area. “So when we see stimulus checks go out, we do see less people in our lines, when we see additional unemployment checks, we see less people in our lines. And conversely, when those things stop, we do see our numbers swell.”
He cited that according to studies the organization conducted, about 68% of the people showing up in food bank lines at the start of the coronavirus pandemic had never been in one before.
Currently, Mantz noted their demand is about 35% higher than pre-pandemic levels, where many food relief organizations were already struggling to keep up at those levels with funds, resources and food. The pandemic has placed significant strains on food banks in trying to keep up with elevated demands along with implementing coronavirus safety protocols in doing so, navigating supply chain issues, and responding to the broad impacts of the pandemic on individuals and families.
In Texas, all federal extended unemployment benefits are ending prematurely on 26 June, leaving more than 1.3 million unemployed workers with cancelled or reduced unemployment benefits.
Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas based in Austin explained the pandemic hit low-income Americans the hardest economically, and demand is still elevated in helping these people who are struggling to recover, especially those who are already struggling financially before the pandemic. She expects at least a short-term increase in demand when federal unemployment benefits end later this month in Texas.
“We’re anticipating that we will see at least a short-term surge when the unemployment benefits run out. So we’re gearing up for that,” said Cole. “People who were lower-income to begin with tend to get hit harder by natural and economic crises, and it can take them as individuals and the communities they live in a lot longer to come back.”