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Safety Net Cuts in the Midst of High Poverty Worsen Hunger Crisis

September 27, 2023

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing record-high jumps in poverty between 2021 and 2022. Poverty in the U.S. increased across all age categories, household types, and racial and ethnic groups measured. Especially concerning are the findings that disparities by race and ethnicity dramatically widened — erasing substantial gains that had been made since the pandemic — and that poverty rates among children more than doubled. Experts attribute much of the backsliding to the expiration of pandemic-era economic supports, such as the Child Tax Credit expansion and other safety net programs that ended in 2021.

Child Supplemental Poverty Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2009 to 2022

Poverty and low incomes are the main drivers of  food insecurity — the condition of having insufficient or uncertain access to enough food to live a healthy life. Indeed, food banks around the country, including many of our members in California, reported a steady surge in the need for food assistance in 2022, coinciding with the timeframe of the Census data. 

Against this backdrop of economic hardship, 2023 has brought even more setbacks to ending hunger in California, with the termination of CalFresh Emergency Allotments in March and a substantial cut in Pandemic-EBT over the summer. These two benefits together represented one-third of the state’s food assistance safety net when they were in place. 

Multiple data sources illustrate that the need for food assistance in California has intensified over the past year: 

California food insecurity is at pandemic-era levels

Analyses by Northwestern Institute for Policy Studies of the ongoing Census Household Pulse Survey estimate that, in August 2023, 22% of California households overall and 28% of households with children were food insecure. These rates are comparable to those of 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, and higher than in 2021 when there had been a brief downward trend.

Food Insecurity in California on the Rise Again
Food insecurity rates calculated by Northwestern Institute for Policy Studies using data from the US Census Household Pulse Survey, for all respondents and households with children.

Low-income families with children are distressed

Our partners at Propel, the creators of the Providers app, surveyed CalFresh / SNAP users to understand the impact of cuts in Pandemic-EBT benefits among families by comparing responses from August 2023 — after the decrease — to those of August 2022. Data specific to California show that: 

  • 53% of surveyed households with children skipped meals this August, up from 24% in August 2022.
  • 43% of surveyed households with children relied on family or friends for food, up from 28% in August 2022.
  • 53% of all surveyed households ate less due to budget constraints, up from 26% in August 2022.
  • 28% of all surveyed households visited food pantries, compared to 20% in August 2022.
Year-Over-Year Food Hardship among Households with Children

Food banks are straining to respond  

To learn how food banks have been impacted by the end of Emergency Allotments, high inflation, and other conditions, CAFB fielded two “pulse” surveys among our member food banks on the needs they observed in their communities for food assistance and strategies they have used to adapt. Through these surveys, which asked about April and July 2023 respectively, we learned that of the food banks that responded:

  • In both months, the vast majority (88%) had received more calls from community members seeking food, compared with the months preceding.
  • In July, over two thirds (68%) served more people compared to prior months. This is striking given that July and August are typically slower for many food banks. Some food banks that served the same or fewer people indicated they had had a surge earlier in the year, and/or they did not have the budget to serve more.
  • To cope with increased demands, 75% have had to increase fundraising, and 69% have had to use a disproportionate percentage of their budgets to supply food for their communities.
July 2023 Service Trends for CAFB Member Food Banks
Percentage of respondents serving more, the same, or fewer people in July compared with average April–June. (n=34 food banks)

The value of CalFresh benefits decreased by 37% with the end of CalFresh Emergency Allotments  

Data provided to CAFB by the California Department of Social Services show that CalFresh households lost an average of $183 per month when Emergency Allotments ended in March. Over the summer, CAFB conducted focus groups and interviews with CalFresh outreach workers and community members to understand the life experiences of people receiving CalFresh, the role Emergency Allotments played in their pandemic recovery, and the impact of losing them earlier this year. Data are currently being analyzed and will be shared in the coming months.

We continue to track these and other data to better understand all aspects of food insecurity in California, including the impacts of policy and program changes. We are also developing a resource bank for members and the public to have continuous access to data about food insecurity and other forms of economic hardship.

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