Cara Baldari, Olivia Gomez, First Focus Campaign for Children
This week marks Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, a time for action toward the goal of ensuring that no child in the U.S. goes hungry and every child has a safe and stable place to live.
Skyrocketing rent in many areas, combined with the high cost of food, gasoline, and other goods, has left many households with children struggling to make ends meet and at risk of eviction and homelessness. While increases in rent have slowed a little since the summer, rents are still up 7 percent from last year, and they are up much higher in certain metro areas. The cost of food has also increased by 11.2 percent since last year, making it difficult for many families to put food on the table.
Compounding the problem is that most eviction bans are no longer in place, emergency rental assistance has dried up in many communities, and improvements to the Child Tax Credit expired at the end of 2021. For example, research has shown that the expiration of the Child Tax Credit increased food insecurity in households with children by 25 percent.
The past few years have shown us that hunger and homelessness is not an intractable problem. We were able to reduce food insecurity for families with children, prevent millions of evictions, and cut child poverty nearly in half through measures that put money directly into households to use for food, rent, child care, and more, and put legal protections in place that stopped many families from being kicked out of their homes.
There is much that policymakers can do in the fight to end hunger and homelessness to stop the backtracking of progress that is now occurring from the expiration of these programs.
First, policymakers must prioritize investments in and improvements to programs that help families afford the rising costs of food. Consistent access to enough healthy food is critically important for the development, learning, health, and well-being of children. Food insecurity inflicts long-term health and development damage on children and often compounds and exacerbates additional problems associated with child poverty. Federal food assistance and child nutrition programs provide critical support, filling in the gaps and fighting hunger and poor nutrition when low-income families struggle to put food on the table.
The pandemic has shown that government investment in federal food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program, positively impact the lives of low-income families, especially those with children. However, as aid continues to expire, successful programs like boosts to SNAP benefits and free school meals for all are also ending, causing many families to once again struggle to make ends meet.
Second, Congress must act immediately to renew improvements to the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit made in the American Rescue Plan. The Child Tax Credit reduced poverty, food insecurity, and material hardship in 2021 for families with children through improvements to the credit that significantly increased the amount of the credit, delivered it monthly for half of the year, and allowed families with little or no income to be eligible for the full credit for the first time. The Child Tax Credit also helped to narrow the poverty gap for Black and Hispanic children in 2021 compared with white children.
Third, federal, state, and local policymakers must act to do more to prevent evictions. Families with children are evicted at much higher rates than those without children, and evictions are particularly harmful to children, causing upheaval that negatively affects their health, education, and overall development. Children who experience eviction often move frequently and face homelessness or unstable living environments that inhibit their education, physical health, mental health, and interpersonal relationships.
Finally, we must do more to reach children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness or living in precarious housing situations, who often are ineligible or not prioritized for rental or homelessness assistance. Over the past few years, eviction moratoriums often did not protect families staying in hotel or motel rooms, or temporarily with others, and were also not prioritized for COVID emergency rental assistance or homelessness assistance.
Without being on a lease or being considered legal tenants, homeless families staying temporarily with others or in motels continue to face great difficulty qualifying or being prioritized for rental assistance. And while families and children in these situations are considered homeless by other federal agencies, they do not meet the definition of homelessness used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), making them ineligible for federal homeless assistance services. These children fall through the cracks of both the rental and homeless assistance systems.
As rent and food prices increase, eviction bans and emergency assistance end, and families continue to bear the ongoing physical, emotional, economic, and interpersonal trauma caused by COVID, we fear that homelessness, housing instability, and food insecurity will only continue to rise unless Congress increases investments and acts decisively by: