Replacing school meals, P-EBT program lifted millions of children out of hunger

The Pandemic EBT program, created by Congress to help low-income families buy food for their children during school closures, “is hitting its target,” said researchers at the Brookings Institution. “We find that Pandemic EBT reduces food hardship faced by children by 30 percent in the week following its disbursement.”

The impact fades a bit as families exhaust the benefits, which ranged from $250-$400 per child, but P-EBT “lifted at least 2.7-3.9 million children out of hunger,” estimated the four researchers who wrote the report. They recommended an extension and expansion of P-EBT through the 2020-21 school year and a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits.

“Households continue to experience very high levels of food hardship as measured by food insecurity, the share of households overall reporting not having enough to eat and the share of households with children without enough to eat,” the researchers said. Food insecurity rates are believed to have doubled since the pandemic and accompanying recession hit the United States.

Co-author Lauren Bauer said the report was the first evaluation of P-EBT, a voucher that functions like SNAP: Families receive a payment on an EBT card, which they use to buy groceries. Benefits are based on the number of days that schools were closed locally for the 2019/20 school year. States implemented P-EBT on a laddered schedule beginning in mid-April. The staggered implementation allowed researchers to compare reports of food hardship in weekly “pulse” surveys by the Census Bureau with the disbursement of P-EBT among states from April 20 to July 7.

“During the first week after P-EBT benefits are paid, the rate of children not getting enough to eat declines by 11 percent points — which is more than a 30 percent reduction in the usual rate in this population,” said the report. In the second week, “when perhaps the additional resources have run out,” the rate of child food hardship was 8 points lower, leading to the estimate that at least 2.7-3.9 million children were lifted out of hunger by P-EBT.

Puerto Rico was left out of P-EBT.  “As a result, close to 300,000 children in Puerto Rico’s public schools can’t access the P-EBT benefits,” said the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The school children are among 1.5 million Puerto Ricans “facing deep cuts in food assistance in August,” with the expiration of emergency nutrition funding, said the think tank.

Meanwhile, the USDA, which oversees child nutrition programs and SNAP, reprised a 2019 report that estimated each $1 in SNAP benefits creates $1.54 in additional economic activity. If SNAP benefits were increased by $1 billion, the multiplier effect would create 13,560 jobs, a third of them in the trade and transportation sector, said USDA economists.

The White House opposed an earlier proposal for a temporary increase in SNAP benefits during the pandemic.