In the COVID Crisis, Unemployment Assistance Puts Food on the Table
Receiving unemployment insurance cuts a person’s risk of food insecurity by a third, and halves the likelihood of needing to eat less because of financial constraints. And receiving more coverage, such as the CARES Act supplement, means an even bigger reduction in the risk of going hungry.
As another wave of COVID-19 puts millions out of work, tens of millions more remain unemployed, and Congress debates aid, a new Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) study shows that unemployment help directly translates to people being able to put food on the table.
The CARES Act—passed in March of 2020— expanded unemployment insurance coverage, amount, and duration.
Published in JAMA Network Open, the study finds that receiving unemployment insurance cuts a person’s risk of food insecurity by a third, and halves the likelihood of needing to eat less because of financial constraints. And receiving more coverage, such as the weekly $600 supplement included in CARES until last July, means an even bigger reduction in the risk of going hungry.
“There has long been a need to improve the proportion of people covered, the duration of coverage, and the amount of coverage in our unemployment insurance system. This paper speaks to the critical role that unemployment insurance can play in preventing people from facing food insecurity during a crisis,” says study lead author Julia Raifman, assistant professor of health law, policy & management.
Raifman and colleagues used data from the Understanding Coronavirus in America study, looking at a sample of 2,319 people who had household incomes less than $75,000 and had been employed in February. By the end of July, 1,119 people (nearly half) had experienced unemployment.
Of those who lost their jobs, 415 reported food insecurity and 437 reported that they sometimes ate less because of financial constraints.
The researchers found that receiving unemployment insurance was associated with a 35.0-percent relative decline in a person’s risk of food insecurity, and a 47.8-percent relative decline in the likelihood of having to eat less. Receiving larger amounts of unemployment insurance and/or the weekly $600 CARES supplement came with even more substantial declines in food insecurity and having to eating less.
The researchers also identified major disparities in who is facing food insecurity among those who have lost their jobs during COVID: 69.2 percent of Indigenous participants in the study reported food insecurity, as did 52.5 percent of Hispanic participants, 42.2 percent of Black participants, 40.3 percent of Asian participants, and 26.9 percent of non-Hispanic white participants.
They also found that 46.1 percent of households with kids faced food insecurity, compared to 32.8 percent of households without kids.
“It is heartbreaking that families with children are even more likely to face food insecurity,” Raifman says. “The recent Booker/Pressley policy proposal to provide direct payments to children’s families could make a big difference for their food security and short- and long-term health.”
The study was co-authored by Jacob Bor, assistant professor of global health at SPH; and by Atheendar Venkataramani, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania Leonard Davidson Institute for Health Economics.