Commentary: Will Congress hear the canary’s call on hunger?

It is said that hunger is the canary in the coal mine of household economic suffering. For cash-strapped families left with only cruel choices on how to meet their basic needs, food is often the first item sacrificed. Better to skip some meals than lose the apartment, the thinking goes.

Right now, the canary is sending out a loud warning call. Hunger is rising rapidly. That is why the upcoming battle in Congress over the farm bill — the legislation authorizing the nation’s principal nutrition program — will have profound consequences on the well-being of millions of people across the nation.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed a big jump in the number of households experiencing food insecurity, meaning their finances made it difficult for them to obtain adequate food. In the worst of cases, some members of the family even skipped meals.   The share of food insecure households in the U.S. increased from 10.5 percent in 2021 to 12.8 percent in 2022, bringing to an end a decade of slow but steady improvement. In raw numbers, some 17 million households were food insecure in 2022, about 3.5 million more than the prior year.

While the Department of Agriculture report does not explore the causes for the jump in food insecurity, it’s not hard to identify the reasons. For one, the rising cost of living continues to pressure family budgets, forcing some to cut back on food. 

Another factor is the expiration of the enhanced federal Child Tax Credit, a policy that not only slashed child poverty in 2021, the one year it was in effect, but also bolstered food security for families with children. Besides increasing the amount of the credit and making it fully available to the lowest-paid families, the enhanced Child Tax Credit contained a feature that made it especially effective at reducing hunger. It made the benefits available in monthly installments, allowing families to use it to cover recurring expenses such as food. But just as the end of the enhanced Child Tax Credit saw child poverty return with a vengeance, its expiration is making it harder for families to put food on the table.  

That’s not the end of the bad news. Earlier this year, another federal program helping feed vulnerable families also expired. During the pandemic, Congress boosted the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for many families. But these so-called “emergency allotments” ended in March. With their disappearance, the average Oregonian receiving SNAP had to do with about $104 per month less in food assistance. 

The effect was immediate. “We saw the number of people seeking food assistance in Oregon and southwest Washington skyrocket,” said Oregon Food Bank President Susannah Morgan in her recent State of Hunger Address.

And now, another threat to families struggling to put food on the table looms. The farm bill, which sets the rules for SNAP and comes up for reauthorization every five years, expired at the end of September. The pressure is now on a deeply divided Congress to pass a new farm bill. For some time now, House Republicans have been pushing to make it harder for some people to qualify for SNAP benefits by stiffening work-reporting requirements.

Research shows that such requirements don’t work. They don’t increase employment, in part because most SNAP participants who can work already do so. Instead, work requirements create bureaucratic hurdles that force some people to drop out.

The recent chaos in Congress doesn’t offer much confidence that it will heed the warning call of the canary. It doesn’t inspire confidence that it will act to relieve the economic distress so many families endure by crafting a farm bill that not only rejects cuts to SNAP, but also strengthens food assistance to meet the rising need. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that not long ago, Congress put in place policies that had a decisive effect in reducing hunger across the nation. So progress is possible. But it will take all of us demanding that our elected officials do right by our nation’s most vulnerable families. 

Juan Carlos Ordonez is the communications director of the Oregon Center for Pubic Policy and host of the podcast Policy for the People. Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.