James Ziliak quoted in CNN Politics

(CNN) — Food insecurity among families with children fell in 2021, reversing a spike during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a US Department of Agriculture report released Wednesday.

Some 6.2% of households with children, or 2.3 million families, were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their kids last year, compared with 7.6% in 2020, the report found. Last year’s rate was not significantly different than the 2019 share.

However, the news was not all good.

Elderly Americans living alone experienced an increase in food insecurity. The rate rose to 9.5% last year, from 8.3% in 2020.

Also, food insecurity among childless households was 9.4% last year, up from 8.8% in 2020. Among women living alone, the rate jumped to 13.2%, from 11% a year earlier.

Overall, however, the share of households contending with food insecurity remained statistically the same in 2021 as the year before. Some 10.2%, or 13.5 million households, were food insecure last year, according to the report, which is released annually.

More help for families with children

Though the USDA does not delve into the factors behind the changes in food insecurity, experts point to the enhanced child tax credit as a major reason why it declined among children and their families last year.

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed in March 2021, tens of millions of families received monthly payments of up to $300 per child from July through December.

The relief package increased the maximum credit to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for those ages 6 through 17 for 2021. Heads of households earning up to $112,500 a year and married couples making up to $150,000 were eligible for the full amount.

Also, it made the credit fully refundable so the lowest-income families could qualify. Half the credit was distributed last year, and families could claim the other half when they filed their 2021 tax returns this year.

Studies showed that families spent much of the money on necessities, while the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found that parents reported less trouble paying for food and household expenses after the initial installment was received.

“What it did was made sure that they had resources to spend every month,” Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, said of the enhanced payments.

The economic recovery and strong job market also helped families afford to put food on their tables, she added.

Food insecurity declined overall for households with children, married couples with kids and single mothers with children. It also dropped for households headed by Black Americans and those in the South, both of which saw increases in food insecurity in 2020.

More hunger among the elderly and childless

Food insecurity among the elderly living alone may have increased because Social Security payments in 2021 did not reflect the jump in prices for groceries and other items, which started last year, said James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.

The annual cost of living adjustment was only 1.3% for 2021, which translated into roughly $20 a month, though it was 5.9% for this year as inflation began to climb.

And while the unemployment rate dropped last year, several million Americans left the labor force, he pointed out. Some may not have children, which makes it harder for them to get help from the government.

“There’s just not much assistance out there in the safety net for the childless,” Ziliak said.

Concerns about 2022

The improvements in food security for families may not continue in 2022, experts warn.

High inflation, particularly for food, is putting a strain on family budgets. Grocery prices soared 13.1% over the 12 months through July, which was the largest annual increase since the year ending in March 1979, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, the beefed-up child tax credit, including the monthly payments, was not renewed for this year. Also, a growing number of states are ending enhanced food stamp benefits that were enacted at the start of the pandemic.

“Sadly, the 2022 report, for families with children, may look less rosy,” Ziliak said.