Food insecurity among families with children rose significantly last year after falling markedly in 2021, according to a US Department of Agriculture report released Wednesday.
Children were food insecure at times in 3.3 million households with kids during 2022, an increase of 1 million families from the prior year, the report found.
Some 8.8% of households with children were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their kids last year, compared with 6.2% in 2021.
Overall, some 17 million households, or 12.8%, had difficulty providing food for all members at some time in 2022 because of a lack of resources. That is up from 13.5 million households, or 10.2%, the year before.
Nearly all types of households saw food insecurity increase between 2021 and 2022, said Matthew Rabbitt, an economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Factoring in adults, food insecurity among households with children jumped 38% between 2021 and 2022, while it rose 36% for rural households. Food insecurity in households with elderly members climbed 28%, as it did for households headed by Hispanic Americans.
“There’s just a lot of precarity in the economy still,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a social policy professor at Northwestern University. “Food is one of the few places that families kind of have the ability to cut back because you can’t say, ‘Let me pay half of my mortgage this month or pay half of my rent.’”
Poverty also rose last year, particularly among children, she noted.
Some 12.4% of children were in poverty in 2022, up from a record low of 5.2% the year before and roughly comparable to where it was prior to the pandemic in 2019, based on a broader alternative measure developed by the US Census Bureau.
“We know that food insecurity and poverty were both pushed down by the extraordinary Covid response,” she said of the improvements in both measures in 2021.
Expiration of pandemic support
Though the USDA does not delve into the factors behind the changes in food insecurity, experts point to the loss of federal Covid-19 pandemic assistance as a major reason why food insecurity increased in 2022.
Among the supports that expired was the enhanced child tax credit. As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, tens of millions of families received half the credit as monthly payments of up to $300 per child from July through December 2021. They received the other half when they filed their 2021 tax returns.
The relief package increased the maximum credit to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for those ages 6 through 17 for 2021. Also, it made the credit fully refundable so the lowest-income families could qualify.
The introduction of the monthly child tax credit payments was associated with a drop in household food insufficiency of roughly 26%, according to Paul Shafer, an assistant professor at Boston University, in research published last year in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Also, Americans received their third and final stimulus payment, worth up to $1,400, in 2021.
Several pandemic enhancements to food assistance programs ended during 2022, which led to more food insecurity, said Sarah Bowen, professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.
These included a universal school meals program, which provided free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income until the start of the 2022-23 school year, and emergency allotments for food stamp recipients, which ended in 17 states last year and in all other states earlier this year.
The quick implementation of relief measures prevented food insecurity from spiking during the economic upheaval in the early years of the pandemic like it has in past downturns, Bowen said.
“It just really shows that we could do this if we had the will,” she said. “And then we dropped the ball and let it all go. We’re saying collectively, ‘We don’t care about hunger. We don’t care about children who are hungry.’”
Although the job market remains strong, inflation has weighed on people’s ability to buy enough food, experts said. Last year, food prices increased by 9.9%, while the cost of food at home jumped by 11.4%, according to the USDA.
This story has been updated with additional information.