Why Hunger Can Grow Even When Poverty Doesn’t

Though she is in the country legally, she hesitated to apply for food stamps because of the public charge rule. She relented only after running short on food, when a food bank suggested she apply only for her three American children. “Now my kids are eating better, but I’m very afraid,” she said. “I don’t plan to renew the assistance.”

Data on food insecurity during the pandemic comes from four surveys: three by private researchers and one by the Census Bureau. All suggest elevated hardship, with the largest problems among people of color and families with children. But the degree of the increase is in dispute.

A recent survey by the Urban Institute found about 18 percent of adults were food insecure, up from about 11 percent by the government’s pre-pandemic count. Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University who analyzed weekly census surveys, puts food insecurity at about 25 percent, more than twice the pre-crisis level. Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution looking at severe problems among households with children, found the levels had risen nearly sixfold.

Some surveys find hardship easing since early in the pandemic; others do not.

At least three issues cloud the results. One is that current surveys have low response rates — less than 5 percent in the census surveys. That means respondents may not reflect the country over all.

In addition, data collection has moved from the phone to internet questionnaires. Any change in methodology could skew results, and people embarrassed by their shortage of food may be more likely to disclose it online. (That would suggest food insecurity before the crisis was higher than previously known.)

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The number of questions and their wording has also changed, making it hard to compare the results to pre-crisis benchmarks.

Scott Winship, an aide to Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, agreed that hunger had risen, but he said the most dire findings exaggerated the degree. They relied on “emergency surveys of much lower quality” than those used before the pandemic, he said, and the results showed much more hardship than in the Great Recession, which raised “an explosion of red flags.”



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