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Food bank lines and rent struggles show just how big of an economic emergency coronavirus is

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Soaring unemployment is having immediate effects on millions of people, in an economy where—before coronavirus hit—40% of people said they’d struggle to deal with an unexpected $400 expense. Two of the big impacts are on two of the most basic expenses: rent and food.

According to data from a trade group, 31% of renters hadn’t paid rent during the first five days of April, compared with 18% over the same days in 2019. And food banks are overwhelmed with new demand and plummeting food donations.

While some cities and states have passed eviction moratoriums, that doesn’t solve the problem of what happens when the moratoriums are lifted and people who couldn’t pay their rent now owe months of back rent, without protections. But small landlords with mortgages also face potential problems—and if you don’t have sympathy for landlords, the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition gave The New York Times a reason you should at least be concerned for their tenants. If the small landlords who own more affordable properties are foreclosed on, those properties are likely to be bought up by investors who will retool them for higher-income tenants, squeezing out still more people who need affordable housing. “One way or the other, we have to get aid to smaller landlords so that the precious affordable-housing stock we have still exists on the other end of this crisis,” she said.

So far, very little of the coronavirus stimulus passed by the federal government will help directly with housing, though as newly jobless people get the expanded unemployment insurance, it may ease the emergency somewhat. But this is another area Congress needs to look at in the necessary next stimulus.

While rent not being paid happens largely out of the public eye—except in a few cases of tenant organizing—the economic crisis is being made visible in food bank lines. Many of us have by now seen footage of a terrifyingly long line of cars waiting for food distribution in Pittsburgh, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Food banks across the country are seeing several times as many people as usual showing up in need—in Washington state and Louisiana, the National Guard has been called in to help with distribution. “Their presence provides safety for us during distributions,” the head of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank told The New York Times.

Meanwhile, food bank donations are down. Grocery stores that usually donate food getting close to its sell-by date have been cleaned out by people stocking up on food for periods of staying home, and restaurants and hotels that often donate food have shut down. Some food banks are getting just half the direct food donations they usually do, forcing them to buy food—and their usual ability to buy in bulk at reduced prices is also taking a hit given the runs on grocery stores. 

The Food Bank of Greater Omaha would normally be spending $73,000 a month on food. Now, it’s $675,000. Three Square Food Bank in Las Vegas reports spending an extra $300,000 to $400,000 a week on food. Feeding America, a network of food banks, is facing a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months.

Again, many people’s immediate food needs will become less of an emergency as aid already passed by Congress reaches them. But that’s not happening quickly enough to keep people from going hungry now—and the scale of the need we’re seeing now shows that it’s not going to be enough. Congress needs to do more.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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