Why many Americans continue to struggle despite trillions of dollars in pandemic aid

Jan 15, 2022
Originally published on January 15, 2022 12:01 pm

It's still more than an hour before the Saint Luke's Food Pantry in Tupelo opens, but already more than a dozen cars are lined up in this corner of northeast Mississippi, the state with the highest poverty rate in the country.

By the time volunteers start handing out food in this December morning, six rows of cars will have filled the small lot — with dozens more parked on the road waiting to get in. By noon, the pantry will have served 559 cars.

Volunteer Lee Stratton says it's been like this virtually every day through the pandemic.

"Lot of people coming," Stratton says. "People need help, you know?"

Trillions of dollars in government aid flowed to businesses and Americans across the country during the pandemic, including through enhanced food stamps and monthly payments to many families with kids.

For many families, it was a substantial financial lifeline, helping them put more food on the table, afford more necessities or pay down debt.

Yet scenes such as the one in Saint Luke's Food Pantry are a sign of how struggling Americans continue to need help despite that government assistance — especially at a time when inflation has surged to its highest in around 40 years.

Take Faith Spearman, who was one of the people waiting in line for food at the pantry.

Spearman says she's better off than before the pandemic, in large part due to a hike in benefits last year from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP.

The increase in SNAP, one of the most widely used federal welfare programs, allows her son to buy his favorite juice.

"Just to see him smile and know, 'Hey, my momma got me this at the store. This is what I really wanted.' That make me feel good," Spearman said.

Yet she still doesn't make enough to cover a month's worth of groceries her family with her $10.75-an-hour job working the customer service lines for DirecTV from home.

Cars line up to receive food and supplies at the Saint Luke's Food Pantry in Tupelo, Miss., on Dec. 2, 2021. Despite trillions in government aid, many Americans still require help to make ends meet.
Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom / Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom

One financial step forward – and two steps back

Over the long-term, experts say the financial aid like enhanced food stamps will help improve lives.

But with the pandemic still lingering as the omicron variant continues to spread across the country, families find that the help is often still not enough.

"Long term we will see the policy shifts will benefit families. But where we are right now we can't say that because we still are in the pandemic," said Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard To Opportunities, a charity helping families living in Jackson's affordable housing.

Sometimes, there can even be unintended consequences.

The increase in SNAP unveiled in October was seen as a cause for celebration by many advocates in the fight against hunger. It marked the first time purchasing power with the plan was actually increased since 1975. Previous increases to the program were done solely to catch up with inflation.

But how much people receive from the program is determined by how much they make, leading some families to see their benefits decrease this year.

Experts call this a benefit cliff — when someone on welfare starts earning more money, the loss in government aid that's triggered can actually make that person worse off financially.

Among those who have fallen in that category is Ashanti Mundy from Guntown, Miss.

McDonald's raised her pay to $11 per hour this year — a welcome consequence of the country's tight labor market.

But that very same extra pay caused her SNAP benefits to decline, meaning Mundy took a financial step forward, only to then have to take another step – or two – back.

"It helps," Mundy said of the SNAP benefits. "Don't get me wrong, it helps. But in all it's still keeping you [stagnant]."

President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. The bill was one of several pieces of legislations passed by Congress to provide help to Americans during the pandemic.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

Child Tax Credit stuck in limbo

Another program that received a lot of praise from poverty advocates is the Child Tax Credit, a Biden administration initiative that was approved by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan in March.

In July, the program began sending monthly payments to families based on the number of children and their age — $300 a month for each child under six and $250 a month for every other child under 18. Parents will also get an additional lump-sum payment when they file their taxes this year.

The Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University credits the Child Tax Credit as a major reason why the U.S poverty rate fell 2 percentage points from June to July, or right after the first payment started going out.

Nyandoro, the CEO of the charity Springboard to Opportunity, recalls the excitement of a mother who was due to receive the Child Tax Credit.

"She talked about how this was the first time ... she would be able to take her kids to the store to pick out their backpacks, because they were getting ready for back to school time," Nyandoro recalled.

But the program expired at the end of the year, and it has not been renewed. Democrats want to bring it back this year, but Senator Joe Manchin opposes the current version of the program and wants to add work requirements and an income cap in order to gain his support.

Laura Sifuentes from Rosdale, Miss., says the Child Tax Credit provided her with critical help after the pandemic forced her to leave her job with a local Head Start program when schools went virtual and she had to take care of her kids.

The monthly payments allowed her pay for things like the National Honor Society registration fee for her daughter and new clothes for her growing boys.

"It's a big help because I'm able to do more for my children," she said.

But even with the payment, she still had to watch what she spent. And with the payment now gone, she again needs to be even more careful as she looks for a job, one that can hopefully match her previous $12-per-hour job.

"The CTC has been a blessing," Sifuentes said recalling how the Child Tax Credit helped her family. "But now I have to be more smart about the way I shop. "

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Are low-income families are better off today than they were before the pandemic? The federal government began to give those households more support to help pay for food and raise their families. But Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports that while many families have more money, it's not enough to help them fully escape poverty.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Each week, the St. Luke Food Pantry gets packed with more than six rows of cars, and that's even before the pantry opens. Volunteer Lee Stratton handles the traffic.

LEE STRATTON: Come on in. How y'all doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right.

STRATTON: The parking lot's full. Put in park. Put your flashers on. Soon as we start rolling here, I'll get y'all in as soon as we can, OK? Thank you.

BISAHA: The pantry's based in Tupelo, Miss., the state with the highest poverty rate in the country. By the end of the day, the pantry will serve 559 cars. Stratton says that's been pretty standard for more than a year.

STRATTON: Out here it's been the same number with a lot of people coming. Just pack them in.

BISAHA: One of the people waiting is Jana Phillips (ph). Inflation's a big issue on her mind.

JANA PHILLIPS: You know, the food prices are going up so freaking high that it's just ridiculous.

BISAHA: December's food prices were up more than 6% compared to the previous year, the largest hike since 2008. But if you ask Phillips how she's doing compared to before the pandemic...

PHILLIPS: We're better off, I would say.

BISAHA: Despite the long line at the pantry, a lot of people have that same answer, including Faith Spearman.

FAITH SPEARMAN: So me - I'm better off now because I got extra help.

BISAHA: That extra help came from SNAP, better known as food stamps. In October, the USDA permanently increased SNAP benefits by about 25%. Spearman still needs the food pantry to get by. But even with the inflation, she can now buy more groceries each month and let her son pick more the food he wants.

SPEARMAN: My baby - he like juice and stuff. So whatever kind of juice he see, he want it.

BISAHA: What does that mean for you being able to let the kids pick some more food they like?

SPEARMAN: More smiles. So just to see him smile and know, hey, my momma got me this at the store. This is what I really wanted. That made me feel good.

BISAHA: Another helping hand came from the child tax credit.

AISHA NYANDORO: They get excited. They're like, it's child tax credit Day.

BISAHA: Aisha Nyandoro runs a program helping families living in affordable housing in Jackson, Miss. Starting last July, the child tax credit sent parents hundreds of dollars each month based on how many kids they have and their ages.

NYANDORO: One of our moms - and I was saying, you know, are you excited? And what are you going to use this check for? And she talked about how this was the first time she would be able to take her kids to the store to pick out their backpacks because they were getting ready for back-to-school time.

BISAHA: By November, the U.S. poverty rate dropped a couple percentage points below pre-pandemic numbers, according to estimates from Columbia University. Researchers credit that to the child tax credit and other COVID relief programs. The last monthly child tax credit payment went out in December. Democrats want to bring it back, but it's stuck in the Senate. The child tax credit has been a big help to Laura Sifuentes in the Mississippi Delta, but the economic consequences of the pandemic are still real here.

LAURA SIFUENTES: Before the pandemic, I did work. I did have a job, and I was probably one of the most highest-paying jobs around here.

BISAHA: That high-paying job at a local Head Start program paid $12 an hour. She had to give it up to take care of her own four kids and nieces and nephews when they went to school virtually. She likes getting more time with her family but misses having a paycheck to better take care of her kids' needs.

SIFUENTES: Clothes wise, shoes wise. You know, if I wanted to spend a little extra, I could do it. But now I have to be more smart about the way I shop.

BISAHA: So what do you need to get you to where you want to be?

SIFUENTES: A job (laughter). A job, which I'm looking for. A job.

BISAHA: A good-paying job, one that lets her spend time with her kids after school and on weekends. A tight labor market across the country has caused wages to rise and let workers be pickier when it comes to perks and hours. But in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country, Sifuentes says she still hasn't been able to find a job paying what she earned before the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.