Two pandemic-area programs reduced hunger and poverty in Colorado kids. What happens when they go away?

As a single mom who spends more than half her income on rent and whose 9-year-old son has special needs that are costly to treat, an extra $250 a month from the government made a huge difference in Heidi Laursen’s life.

She, like the parents of some 1 million children in Colorado, was a beneficiary of the expanded child tax credit, a cash-aid program that during the pandemic was amended to provide more money, on a more regular basis, to people with kids.

This expansion had the effect of reducing poverty in the U.S., nonpartisan analysts and researchers found. Census data in late 2021 found poverty had fallen to a 10-year low in Colorado.

But Congress declined to renew this program several months ago, and now people like Laursen, who had enjoyed major relief from the tax credit, are experiencing equal and opposite effects.

The evaporation of that historic support for U.S. families may compound this summer, when a pandemic-era program that made school meals free for all students is set to expire. Advocates say that program freed up tens of millions of dollars for Colorado families to put toward other household needs, as well as kept bellies full, both of which could be reversed if the state legislature declines to account for federal inaction.

Laursen, who lives in Denver, said, “We are cutting back on in groceries, trimming the fat where we can.”

Her son likes Eggo waffles in the morning, but now she’s buying oatmeal because it’s cheaper. The family used to spend $35 once a month on Chinese takeout, but no longer does.

She spends $60 a week on behavioral therapy for her son that she can’t afford. The expanded tax credit alone had taken care of that expense.

“The perception is that the people who qualified for (the credit) aren’t working hard enough, that they don’t want to work harder to get money in other ways,” said Laursen, a sales director for a national hotel company.

“I take a lot of offense to that. You have people who are affected by this in all kinds of different income brackets. People might think you’re doing OK, but there’s a lot of us stretched as far as we can stretch right now.”

She’s lucky, she adds, to have a forgiving landlord. But when her lease is up she’ll probably have to leave Denver, like so many others for whom this city is no longer affordable.

The expanded child tax credit was perhaps the most consequential program in a broader pandemic trend that saw governments cover people’s basic needs on an emergency basis. Now, two years since the first COVID-19 cases were detected here, Coloradans are relearning to live without that extra help, and politicians are debating which supports, if any, deserve to stick.

Colorado parent says her kids want and need fresh, healthy food, but it costs “a lot of money I don’t have”

Near the beginning of the pandemic, when food insecurity threatened millions of kids across the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized universal free meals at schools. No income qualifications, no special lines, just freely available food to any student who wanted them.

Two years later, that federal program is set to expire, to the chagrin of anti-hunger advocates who stress how much it helped keep kids healthy and best able to learn and prosper.

For Telluride resident Minerva Calvo Rojas, the program helps blunt the cost of keeping her three kids’ bellies full while cultivating a taste for fruits and vegetables. It also proved a valuable backstop for more hectic mornings to know that her kids can find a free breakfast at school.

Now, she worries about adjusting an already tight budget to not just feed her kids, but feed them the healthy food they want and need.

Her wages as a housekeeper have gone up recently, but so has the costs of everything else. She worries it may put her on the wrong side of the income cutoff for the traditional free lunch program.

“As adults, we can eat whatever. But kids need healthy meals. They need milk, they need eggs, they need fruit. I try to keep it at home, but it’s extremely expensive,” Calvo Rojas said.

It wasn’t long ago she could stretch $100 into a week of groceries, she said. Now, it’s double that.

“It’s a lot of money that I don’t have, but I need to spend it on food so my kids can grow healthy,” Calvo Rojas said.

There’s a push in the Colorado legislature to continue universal free meals for students even if the USDA lets it expire at the end of this school year. The cost to the state could be a snag, but backers are working to tamp down the costs.

Colorado schools served an additional 1.3 million school meals a month under universal free food program

Colorado schools served 1.3 million more school meals in October 2021 than in pre-pandemic October 2019, an increase district officials attribute to the expanded free meals program. It’s also proof of the program’s need, sponsors said.

Universal free meals sidesteps the bureaucracy of applying for it, brings in families who may make too much to qualify but still struggle to afford every meal, and erases the stigma that can be associated with childhood poverty.

“When you think about one kid getting into another line, or getting checked out in a different way that other people notice, it creates divisions that are unnecessary,” sponsor Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, said.

In Colorado, some 330,000 students, or 37% of total enrollment, were eligible for free or reduced school meals in 2021. Eligibility depends on household income levels. For a family of three, that cap is $28,545 a year for free meals; it’s $40,626 for reduced meals, though the state government pays the remaining cost that the federal government doesn’t.

Anti-hunger advocates warn that state data likely undercounts the number of families who qualify, since they didn’t need to apply for the program recently to qualify.

“We don’t really know the face of poverty, and we don’t really understand or maybe know those who can afford and those who don’t,” sponsor Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said. “… Our goal here is to ensure that every child can get the food that they need so they can learn. I believe food is just as important as books.”

Dan Sharp, nutrition services director at Mesa County Valley School District, said in a typical school day pre-pandemic, the district would serve about 8,000-9,000 meals at school. That’s roughly in line with the population that qualified for free and free reduced lunch, though it also includes paying students.

After the program expanded to free meals for all students, it jumped to about 12,000 students served on an average day. Sharp believes that reflects both more students who traditionally qualify for the program eating at school, and more students who would be on the cusp.

“Keep in mind, there’s a lot of middle income families that struggle to keep pace with the rise of housing costs, especially in the last two or three years of 20% increases each year,” Sharp said. “There’s a lot of middle-income families that need help.”

Anti-hunger advocate warns of “cliff” families face when pandemic-spurred supports drop off

Keeping the program going could potentially come with a hefty price tag. The initial fiscal analysis estimated free meals for all would cost the state almost $119 million a year. (Sponsors amended the bill recently to cut costs, but a new fiscal analysis was not yet ready. They also argue the cost reflects every student eating every free meal every day — a scenario they say is not plausible, and inflates the price tag substantially.)

The cost gave Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, pause. He said there are parts of the bill he “absolutely loves,” including expanding access to more students in need, but potentially subsidizing meals for affluent families when schools have so many other needs led him to a “difficult” no vote.

“The idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars year-over-year for lunches for students that don’t have a need for that lunch is, I think, a misguided use of dollars that we could be spending elsewhere on behalf of the opportunities for those children, all children, not just wealthy children that don’t need a free lunch,” he said.

The bill passed out of committee Thursday on a bipartisan, 7-2 vote. Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, cast an “enthusiastic” yes vote for it, arguing the bill that would address not just hunger in schools, but students’ overall wellbeing.

Ashley Wheeland, public policy director for Hunger Free Colorado, estimates the program would save struggling Colorado families $78 million a year. Those savings in turn can help them keep up with bills and other needs. With the expiration of the child tax credit and other pandemic-era help, the help is even more desperately needed, she said.

“There’s a lot that ends when the health emergency ends,” she said. “It’s going to be a cliff. We have to look at ways to stop the cliff. For us, the school meals are one key way, and a key to their education is to make sure they have food. People are going to be hungry, they’re going to be facing how are they going to pay their bills, it’s just going to make life a lot harder.”

Michael Bennet, a Democrat of Colorado, has made it a primary mission as a U.S. senator to keep people from the cliff Wheeland describes.

He said he recently hosted a woman from Glenwood Springs in his office, to celebrate her being named teacher of the year in Colorado.

“And she said 70-80% of the people that she works with have to have two or three jobs just to live in Glenwood Springs,” he said.

That this is acceptable to government, he told The Denver Post by phone last week, “is an absolute outrage.”

An avid proponent of free lunch and cash aid programs, Bennet said the benefit he hears about most often from constituents concerns stress level. Politicians, he added, should not abandon policies proven to help people eat well, or at all, and that generally relieve anxiety about meeting essential needs.

Heidi Laursen said something similar: government aid didn’t fix everything for this full-time worker and single mom of a special-needs child, but it did make things easier. She didn’t have to wonder so much about getting her son the care he needs, or about occasionally treating the family to modest luxuries such as name-brand waffles. She didn’t spend as much time contemplating taking on extra work, and worrying about the family time she’d lose as a result.

“We all love our kids and want what’s best for them,” she said. “I’m trying to be as conscientious as possible, because we need to maximize the money that we do have.”

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