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Americans aren’t getting enough to eat during the coronavirus pandemic – here’s what’s happening in Los Angeles County

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Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California
Kayla de la Haye's research for this project by the University of Southern California (USC) Dornsife’s Public Exchange was supported by the USC Dornsife Emergency Fund and by the Keck School of Medicine of USC COVID-19 Research Fund through a generous gift from the W. M. Keck Foundation. The work was done in coordination with the Los Angeles County Emergency Food Security Branch.

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The number of Americans who can’t get enough food is rising from already troubling levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 1 in 10 Americans said in November 2020 that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous week, the U.S. Census Bureau found.
Food insecurity – what happens when someone doesn’t have enough money for food – is just as bad in Los Angeles County, home to one-quarter of California residents. These roughly 10 million people live primarily in urban areas like the cities of Los Angeles, Malibu, Hollywood and Compton.
The Los Angeles crisis surged the most in April, when 26% of all households – and 39% of low-income households – experienced food insecurity that month. By October, the situation had improved somewhat, with 11% of the county’s households and 17% of low-income households remaining food-insecure. The majority of these people are women, Latino, low-income and parents.
Even the lower rate in October was more than triple the norm before the pandemic: Some 5% of low-income households were likely to have experienced food insecurity in any given month of 2018, the most recent comparable data available.

Food insecurity has long been a challenge for Angelenos, especially people with low incomes, people of color and those living in neighborhoods that don’t have enough affordable healthy food.
So when the coronavirus pandemic began, I teamed up with other experts formed by USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange to track how this emergency would affect food security in this region. Our team includes scholars of public health, psychology, health policy, geography and data science. We met every week with the local government representatives leading efforts to address this issue and coordinated with several nonprofits that connect people with food and financial assistance.
Since April, we have surveyed 1,800 adults, who are representative of households in the county, to track their experiences.
We also partnered with Yelp, the local search and review site, which shared information about restaurants and grocery stores across the county, including which ones have closed or stayed open or added delivery services. This data helps us understand how easy or hard it is for people to get food in their own neighborhoods.
Food insecurity is most often brought on by poverty, job loss or a health crisis. It’s no surprise that it would spike during a pandemic that’s caused so much unemployment and illness.
We’ve found that the biggest risk factors for food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic were having a low household income, being unemployed and being a young adult. People between the ages of 18 and 30 were most at risk, while those 65 or older were the least.
We also determined that being a single parent increased the risk of experiencing food insecurity.
On top of economic challenges, the pandemic is disrupting farming and the production and distribution of food. Grocery prices have gone up at least 3.4% since the start of 2020, far exceeding the 2% annual average growth of grocery prices over the past two decades.
At times, restaurants, supermarkets and smaller food stores have curtailed their hours. Our community partners are concerned that it will be hard for independent restaurants and groceries to keep their doors open.
Not having enough to eat is a major public health concern, not only because it causes hunger and distress, but also because it’s linked to poor nutrition and unstable diet patterns.
For example, a family without enough money for food at the end of the month, when bills are due, may eat very little. That family might, when they have money, then stock up on cheaper foods that have lots of calories and will last a long time. Those shopping trips are unlikely to include many expensive fruits and vegetables.
This pattern helps explain why food insecurity increases risks for diet-related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease.
The coronavirus pandemic has made it clearer than ever that the people in your life and where you live affect your health.
Stay-at-home orders are designed to limit the contact we have with family, friends and other acquaintances. These restrictions also make it harder for people to help and support one another during a crisis.
We found that people with fewer relatives and friends were more likely to experience food insecurity at the start of the pandemic.
And we’re hearing that accessing food has been even harder than usual for people who rely on public transportation, with them having the extra risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.
The pandemic has also made it hard to connect with organizations that provide support. With the closure of many school buildings and community centers in Los Angeles County, local government staff and organizations have been working hard so that low-income kids and other residents can still get free or low-cost meals.
On top of all of this, the pandemic is causing huge challenges for emergency food donation programs. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank has more than doubled the amount of food it gives away during the pandemic. Food pantries can’t always get enough food or volunteers to serve all of the people who show up.
On a recent call with a food pantry, I heard about how they went from serving 300 families a week before the pandemic to 4,000 a week now – and how hard it’s been to get enough food to distribute to everyone who lines up.
These emergency food programs just weren’t designed to cope with a crisis at such a big scale, or one that lasts for so long.
To better understand the landscape of food assistance in Los Angeles, we are getting comprehensive information about these programs through Aunt Bertha, a nationwide social care search-and-referral platform where people can search for many types of food assistance, from government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to local food pantries and community gardens.
We’re seeing evidence that food aid and government benefits may make a big difference. For example, the number of Los Angeles households getting SNAP benefits rose by 20%, from 686,378 in March to 822,356 in July. Some of the people we’re tracking managed to become food-secure after getting government food and financial help.
More Angelenos have also been getting other forms of governmental financial assistance, such as unemployment benefits, and obtaining aid from food pantries and the like.
Nationally, there has also been an uptick in the use of community and government assistance programs and signs that government aid is helping families become food-secure.
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However, many people still do not have enough food, including some who obtain food and financial help.
Our findings also point to other opportunities that governments and community organizations have to help people get the food they need. For example, they can help small grocers in neighborhoods that don’t have many food stores stay open and provide subsidized food delivery to low-income people without cars.
We hope our study will help Los Angeles and other cities find opportunities to help everyone get enough to eat during the pandemic.
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What the $25 billion the biggest US donors gave in 2020 says about high-dollar charity today

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Associate Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Leadership, Seattle University
Associate Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University
David Campbell is vice chair of the Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation in Binghamton, New York.
Elizabeth J. Dale has received funding from the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation via Indiana University and The Giving USA Foundation for her research on philanthropy. The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and do not reflect policy stances of Seattle University.
Jasmine McGinnis Johnson is a Visiting Fellow at Urban Institute, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

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Editor’s note: According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top 50 Americans who gave the most to charity in 2020 committed to giving a total of US$24.7 billion to hospitals, homeless shelters, universities, museums and more – a boost of roughly 54% from 2019 levels. David Campbell, Elizabeth Dale and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, three scholars of philanthropy, assess what these gifts mean, the possible motivations behind them and what they hope to see in the future in terms of charitable giving in the United States.
Campbell: Pandemic. Pandemic. Pandemic. The share of giving that went to social service nonprofits, food banks and homelessness assistance groups rose sharply. At the same time, performing arts organizations, largely shut down as a result of the pandemic and starved of revenue from ticket sales, received more support from big donors in 2020 than in 2019, with charitable gifts and pledges to them increasing to $65 million from $51 million.
McGinnis Johnson: Likewise, Racial justice. Racial justice. Racial justice.
For example, basketball legend Michael Jordan declared that he would personally give at least $50 million to racial equity and education causes over the next decade, with his footwear and clothing company kicking in another $50 million. Also, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillan gave a total of $120 million divided into three equal gifts to Morehouse College, Spelman College and UNCF – the group previously called United Negro College Fund that pays for students to attend historically black colleges and universities. Neither Jordan nor Hastings and Quillan, who said their increased awareness about the country’s racial injustices and the deaths of Black people in police custody inspired them to give, made the Chronicle’s list of top donors in 2019.
These and other unusually large gifts taking aim at racial injustice, and other forms of social injustice (not counting HBCU donations), totaled $66 million in 2020. But I had anticipated that there would be even more of this giving by the biggest donors.

Dale: In particular, MacKenzie Scott – Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife – made many gifts to HBCUs. These donations included $50 million for Prairie View A&M University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Morgan State University. In addition to racial justice, her philanthropy has raised the profile of causes like civic engagement, community development and the need to address the medical debt crisis in the U.S. Scott was the second-largest donor for the year, after Bezos. Combined, their commitments totaled nearly $16 billion. Neither made the top 50 in 2019.
Until now, the ultra-rich haven’t typically supported causes like these. Instead, extremely wealthy donors have historically been more inclined to fund higher education and health care, largely with big donations to elite universities, hospitals and arts institutions like museums and operas.
The other aspect that strikes me is the “who” part of the list. There are many new faces: Eight of the 20 top donors didn’t make an appearance on the Philanthropy 50 list for their 2019 giving.

McGinnis Johnson: A total of about $14 billion of this giving went to foundations led by the givers themselves and donor-advised funds, which work somewhat like foundations in that donors set money aside for charity before they actually give those funds to nonprofits. When wealthy people set aside money this way, they receive tax benefits before giving those funds. In a troubling development, some foundations have begun to put some of their disbursed money, which was already designated for charity, into donor-advised funds rather than addressing today’s many urgent needs, such as alleviating hunger and staving off evictions amid a major economic crisis.
Dale: This list reminds me of the limits of philanthropy, especially with a problem as widespread as the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if you add all of the social service gifts together, including donations to food banks, efforts to help the homeless and gifts to pay off medical debt, it adds up to only about $700 million. Compared to the trillions of dollars in relief the government is providing individuals and small businesses for economic problems that began in 2020, you can see that philanthropy from the very wealthiest Americans doesn’t come close to meeting all of the nation’s needs.
One possible way Congress could encourage more donations is by increasing the share of assets that foundations must give away every year. A coalition of wealthy donors including Walt Disney Co. heiress Abigail Disney and at least two members of the Pritzker family – heirs to the Hyatt fortune – supports this change.

McGinnis Johnson: I think that major gifts in support of racial and social justice causes may continue. I also expect to see the emergence of new donors spurred on by these crises who can give in new and different ways. And I hope that more wealthy donors begin to pay more attention to leadership, by supporting organizations led by people of color.
Campbell: Donors like MacKenzie Scott and Susan Sandler – the heir to a fortune made in the home-mortgage business – and some foundations are going out of their way to invest in people, places and organizations that have long been ignored or marginalized.
Also, their public statements about their giving, along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s spreadsheet listing his donations, have raised the bar for transparency in philanthropy.
I believe these new approaches can engage the public in an ongoing debate about the best way to use charitable dollars to build a better world. The question is, will other wealthy donors follow their lead?
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New steps the government’s taking toward COVID-19 relief could help fight hunger

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Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond
Tracy Roof does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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President Joe Biden has pledged to tackle hunger as part of his administration’s efforts to alleviate poverty.
“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden declared on his second full day in office, invoking the “values of our nation.”
One way his administration aims to accomplish this goal is by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the country’s largest anti-hunger program. I’m researching this program, long known as food stamps but today referred to as SNAP, for an upcoming book. The program helps struggling families while boosting the economy during downturns.
As Biden’s presidency gets underway, I’m watching to see not only whether the government expands the amount of aid this program provides people in need today, but whether there are lasting changes to SNAP and other anti-poverty policies that could reduce hunger in the future.
Unlike the Trump administration, Biden’s team is eager to find ways to maximize the use of SNAP to fight poverty during the pandemic and beyond.
Former President Donald Trump criticized the large number of people who remained on SNAP after the last recession, which occurred partly because poverty rates remained high even as unemployment went down. Believing that the program discouraged work, Trump repeatedly tried but failed to limit who could get SNAP.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of people enrolled in SNAP soared again. Spending on the program surged even more because the government temporarily let all beneficiaries get the maximum amount of benefits.
Government aid through SNAP totaled a record US$85.6 billion in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 2020. That money helped feed around 44 million people, up from 35 million a year earlier.
But until recently there was no extra help for the roughly 40% of the people who were already getting the maximum benefits because of their very low incomes. Congress changed that when it approved a 15% increase for all SNAP recipients as part of the December 2020 $900 billion relief package. That benefits boost started the following month.

Despite SNAP’s expansion and additional aid flowing to food banks from government assistance and many high-profile donations to food banks and food pantries by some of the richest Americans, hunger has remained a problem throughout the pandemic.
By January 2021, a government survey found that some 11% of adults, and more than 1 in 7 of all U.S. households with children, said they were having trouble getting enough to eat – well above pre-pandemic levels. The problem is even worse for people of color.
Along with the 15% increase in SNAP benefits Congress approved in December 2020, which initially was to last for six months, were changes to make it easier for college students and those on unemployment benefits to get SNAP.
Biden wants to offer Americans who face economic hardship additional help. He has proposed extending the SNAP increase for at least another three months, through September 2021. Further, he has pledged to work with Congress to tie benefit increases to the health of the economy and the people so that Congress would not have to take action for extra help to kick in.
If Congress adopted such an approach, I believe vulnerable families would no longer be at the mercy of the kind of political squabbling that has delayed additional help during the pandemic.
Biden also signed an executive order directing federal agencies to try to do more for the poorest families through SNAP. In addition, his administration is trying to make it easier for states to send more help to families with children who are missing free or reduced-price meals at school or who are too young to attend.
The proposed SNAP changes are among many temporary benefit increases Biden and others have recently outlined, such as in unemployment benefits and new tax credits for families with children.
Columbia University researchers estimate that a combination of Biden’s proposals could reduce poverty in 2021 by almost 30% and halve the number of U.S. children living in poverty. If successful, this could launch a longer-term transformation in anti-poverty policies.
Many advocates of policies that help the poor have long argued that SNAP benefits are too stingy to provide enough nutritious food for an adequate diet.
On average, people on SNAP use over three-fourths of their benefits by the middle of the month – even in a strong economy. As a result, many SNAP recipients run out of benefits and regularly turn to food banks. In fact, more than 40% of food bank clients are enrolled in SNAP.
Why don’t these benefits fill more gaps?
Technically, food stamp recipients are expected to spend 30% of their own income on food. If they have income, as most SNAP recipients do, their benefits are calculated by reducing the maximum benefit for their family size by 30% of the value of their income after deductions for things like child care. But many financially stressed families don’t feel they can afford to spend that much on food.
Another problem is how the maximum benefit is set. It is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, devised by the Department of Agriculture in 1975 as “a national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.”
Despite changes to reflect new official nutritional recommendations, the government has maintained the same inflation-adjusted cap on spending in place for decades. As a result, the plan relies on unreasonable and outdated assumptions that underestimate average meal costs, especially in areas with high food prices.
One of Biden’s executive orders instructs the USDA to carry out an until-now overlooked mandate that could fix this problem, potentially increasing the amount of SNAP benefits during good times and bad.
To be sure, it’s unclear what will happen with SNAP benefits.
Presidents have often used emergencies to make lasting policy changes, but big expansions in anti-poverty programs have historically been passed with large Democratic majorities in Congress as in the New Deal in the 1930s and the War on Poverty in the 1960s.
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Today, the Senate is evenly split, with Democrats wielding control through Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote in that chamber. The Democratic majority in the House is also narrow.
Just as Trump failed at his efforts to cut many anti-poverty programs, Biden may not succeed in expanding them. But his proposed changes reflect a big shift in how the government uses policies to help Americans in need.
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Mothers who earned straight A’s in high school manage the same number of employees as fathers who got failing grades

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Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina – Charlotte
Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
Mothers who showed the most academic promise in high school have the same leadership opportunities as fathers who performed the worst, according to our new peer-reviewed study. That is, in their early-to-mid careers, mothers who got straight A’s end up overseeing a similar number of employees as men who got F’s.
To reach these conclusions, we used a U.S. national survey that since 1979 has tracked a group of baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964. We focused on the 5,000 or so participants for whom researchers obtained high school transcripts and then compared the data with their responses to career-focused surveys taken over an 11-year period from 1988 to 1998 – a period when most of them were in their 30s.
Overall, our results showed that men manage more employees than women regardless of their GPA. For participants without children, the leadership gap between men and women was fairly constant across GPA levels, with men managing about two to three workers more on average.
What was most interesting to us is what we learned when we focused only on parents. Fathers with 4.0 GPAs reported overseeing an average of 19 people, compared with 10 for childless men with similar grades and about five for fathers with a 1.0 or less. In contrast, the best-performing mothers managed fewer than five people, compared with seven for childless women with top GPAs and three for mothers with the worst grades.

In other words, becoming a parent boosts leadership opportunities for men while diminishing them for women. Even attaining a college or advanced degree had the same effect, helping fathers but doing little for mothers. Other research reveals that men have a faster route to leadership positions across occupations, including in stereotypically feminine fields such as human resources and health care.
Recent economics research has highlighted “lost Einsteins” – the really smart students from poor families who never become inventors because they don’t receive the same advantages and support that even low-achieving kids from rich families do.
The same can be said for women, whose talents have long been underutilized by corporate America. Our research showed that even the most talented and brightest women experience diminished leadership prospects on account of gender-related barriers, especially if they became mothers.
But the problem isn’t motherhood or fatherhood per se. Past research has shown it’s more about how society views mothers and fathers and the associated stereotypes that contribute to gendered outcomes. For example, fathers could be getting more leadership opportunities because employers stereotype them as better fits for positions that emphasize authority, long work hours and travel. Mothers, on the other hand, may see fewer chances because employers falsely believe they are less committed or competent.
Employers could help overcome this problem by reviewing how they evaluate workers and adopting fairer promotion practices that are more likely to recognize women’s talent. More family-friendly policies such as paid leave and subsidized child care could also help.
Given the limits of our sample, we do not know how our findings translate to younger groups, such as millennials. But given that progress toward equality in the workplace has slowed or even stalled on certain measures in recent decades, we believe it’s likely that the leadership prospects of academically gifted women haven’t improved much.
COVID-19 has harmed women’s employment and productivity more than men’s, particularly among parents because of a lack of child care support. We plan to conduct additional research to better understand how women’s leadership opportunities may have been affected by the pandemic.
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