Roughly 12% of American households with children reported not having enough to eat in February.
Advocates said the pandemic made clear that welfare programs too often set up barriers for those who need help the most.
“It was frustrating, it was burdensome, and it made an already difficult situation even more difficult for many people,” said Pamela Herd, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
Much federal aid is filtered through state governments, and caseloads have varied considerably from state to state. Lawmakers loosened guidelines to make it easier for people to qualify for assistance, allowing states to screen applicants over the phone or internet, rather than in person. Still, the ranks of the hungry in the United States have grown.
Kentucky boosted the number of participants in the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program by 21% between February and November, while participation dropped by 17% in Arkansas, government figures show. Likewise, participation in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program rose by 74% in Indiana between February and September and dropped by 37% in Mississippi.
Congress created the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program in March 2020. With most school buildings shut, lawmakers opted to give roughly 30 million low-income students debit cards worth up to $400 to cover the cost of the free meals they had been getting at school. The Brookings Institution think tank estimates the initiative reduced child hunger by roughly a third during the spring and summer, and experts view it as a surprising success. But as with other programs, success varied considerably by state. Some, like Michigan and Indiana, were able to get benefits to eligible children within weeks. Others took months. Tennessee, like 20 other states, required families who were not already enrolled in other welfare programs to fill out an application. That proved to be a major barrier for many families who lacked internet access or, did not know the benefit was available.
As the program was due to expire at the end of September, 240,000 children - a third of those eligible - still had not gotten benefit cards. The state mailed those cards to schools for families to pick up, but 60,000 of them were sent back unclaimed. No applications were needed for a second round of benefits in the Fall. Congress renewed the program in October, but then-President Donald Trump’s administration did not provide clear guidelines on who should qualify, as some schools had returned to in-person learning. Lawmakers provided clearer guidance in December, but as of this month only 29 states had been approved to distribute benefits that should have gone out months ago.
In Tennessee, officials are saying the new round of benefit cards will go out soon. This time, those qualified will not have to fill out an application.