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

There’s still more than an hour until Saint Luke’s Food Pantry opens in Tupelo, but already more than a dozen cars are lining up in this corner of northeast Mississippi, the state with the lowest poverty rate. highest in the country.

By the time volunteers begin distributing food on this December morning, six rows of cars will have filled the small pitch – with dozens more parked in the road waiting to enter. By noon, the pantry will have served 559 cars.

Volunteer Lee Stratton says it’s been like this pretty much every day during the pandemic.

“A lot of people come,” Stratton says. “People need help, you know?

Billions of dollars in government assistance have flowed to businesses and Americans across the country during the pandemic, including through enhanced food stamps and monthly payments to many families with children.

For many families, it was an important financial lifeline, helping them put more food on the table, pay for more basic necessities, or pay off debt.

Yet scenes like the one in Saint Luke’s Food Pantry are a sign of how struggling Americans continue to need help despite this government aid — especially at a time when inflation has peaked. for about 40 years.

Take Faith Spearman, who was lining up for food at the pantry.

Spearman says she is doing better than before the pandemic, thanks in large part to an increase in benefits last year from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP.

Raising SNAP, one of the most used federal welfare programs, allows her son to buy his favorite juice.

“Just to see him smile and know, ‘Hey, my mom bought me this at the store. This is what I really wanted.’ It makes me feel good,” Spearman said.

Yet she still doesn’t earn enough to cover her family’s month-long groceries with her $10.75-an-hour job working customer service lines for DirecTV from home.

Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom / Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom

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Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom

Cars line up to receive food and supplies at Saint Luke’s Food Pantry in Tupelo, Mississippi on Dec. 2, 2021. Despite billions in government aid, many Americans still need help to make ends meet .

One financial step forward – and two steps back

In the long run, experts say financial assistance like enhanced food stamps will help improve lives.

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

“In the long term, we will see that the policy changes will benefit families. But where we are right now, we can’t say that because we’re still in the pandemic,” said Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard To Opportunities, a charity that helps families living in Jackson’s Affordable Housing.

Sometimes there may even be unintended consequences.

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

But the amount people get from the program is determined by their income, leading some families to see their benefits cut this year.

Experts call it a benefit cliff — when someone on welfare starts earning more money, the loss of government assistance that is triggered can actually make that person’s financial situation worse.

Among those who fell into this category is Ashanti Mundy of Guntown, Miss.

McDonald’s raised its wages to $11 an hour this year, a welcome consequence of the country’s tight labor market.

But that same extra pay caused his SNAP benefits to drop, meaning Mundy took a step forward financially, only to then have to take another step — or two — back.

“It helps,” Mundy said of the benefits of SNAP. “Don’t get me wrong, it helps. But overall, it still keeps you [stagnant].”

President Biden signs the US bailout March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC The bill was one of several pieces of legislation passed by Congress to help Americans during the pandemic.

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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AFP via Getty Images

President Biden signs the US bailout March 11, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC The bill was one of several pieces of legislation passed by Congress to help Americans during the pandemic.

Child tax credit stuck in limbo

Another program that has 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 U.S. bailout in March.

In July, the program began sending monthly payments to families based on the number of children and their ages – $300 per month for each child under six and $250 per month for all other children under 18 years old. Parents will also receive an additional lump sum payment. when they file their taxes this year.

Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy credits the child tax credit as one of the main reasons the US poverty rate fell 2 percentage points from June to July , or just after the start of the first installment.

Nyandoro, CEO of charity Springboard to Opportunity, recalls the excitement of a mother who was to receive the child tax credit.

“She explained that it was the first time … that she could take her children to the store to pick out their backpacks, as they were preparing for the start of the school year,” Nyandoro recalls.

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

Laura Sifuentes of Rosdale, Mississippi, said the Child Tax Credit provided her with critical help after the pandemic forced her out of her job with a local Head Start program when schools went virtual and she had to take care of her children.

The monthly payments allowed her to pay for things like National Honor Society fees for her daughter and new clothes for her growing boys.

“It’s a big help because I can do more for my kids,” she said.

But even with the payment, she still had to watch what she was spending. And now that the payment is gone, she again has to be even more careful when looking for a job, which hopefully can match her previous $12 an hour job.

“The CTC has been a blessing,” Sifuentes said, recalling how the child tax credit has helped her family. “But now I have to be smarter in the way I shop.”

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