The highest inflation in 40 years has made basic groceries unaffordable for many poor and low-wealth families. Food banks, to which people turn for help in these situations, are unable to keep up with demand now and since the start of the pandemic. Food insecurity – defined by the USDAi as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” – affects fully one-third of Marylanders, especially those living in Western Maryland, the Lower Shore, and portions of Baltimore County.ii
|Image credit: Maryland Food Bank Hunger Map 2021, https://mdfoodbank.org/hunger-in-maryland/|
How did it get this bad?
Groceries are more expensive now than they have been at any point since 1979,iii but they aren’t the only goods with higher price tags recently. While gas prices have steadily declined since their peak in June,iv the average price is still above what many people are able to pay to get to work, go to school, or care for their children.
Housing costs, including rent, have skyrocketed in many areas. And affordable housing alternatives are few and far between. In April of this year, the median rent in the US surpassed the pay of a full-time federal minimum wage worker by over $500/month, not accounting for utilities, food, and other necessities.v The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines "cost-burdened" people as spending more than 30% of their income on housing.vi Before taxes, a full-time federal minimum wage worker makes $1,256 monthly, but would need to make $5,580 per month (or $32.20/hour) to afford an average 1-bedroom apartment without being "cost-burdened," according to national data. While Maryland's minimum wage of $12.50/hour is higher than the Federal minimum of $7.25, the cost of living here is higher. Not accounting for taxes, the hourly wage needed to reasonably afford a 1-bedroom rental in the Baltimore area is $32.70 and, in the Washington DC metro area, $38.80.vii
All this does not account for utilities, like water and electricity, which are being affected not only by global events but also by the increasingly severe weather caused by climate change. While a small fraction of US workers have successfully negotiated moderate pay raises, the vast majority have seen their wage increases dwarfed by inflation.viii Meaning, though they receive more each paycheck, the higher cost of basic goods and services results in them being able to afford even less.
Factors that have helped and hurt:
- Stimulus checks issued during the first part of the pandemic helped many poor and low-income people, especially those who became unemployed or were unable to work because of in-person school and childcare being unavailable. The last of these checks were issued over 16 months ago and there have been no seriously considered proposals to issue any additionally.
- Unemployment relief provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) made it possible for many families to pay their rent/mortgage, buy basics like groceries, and keep financially afloat. However, these benefits ended in September of 2021, impacting up to 7.5 million people.ix
- The six months of Child Tax Credits, which provided monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child, ended in January of this year. Last November, President Biden's Build Back Better Act would have continued these payments. But after the bill passed in the US House of Representatives, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) essentially killed the bill in the Senate by withdrawing his support, while all 50 Republican Senators opposed it.x As a result, an estimated 3.7 million additional children nationwide descended below the poverty line.xi
What can we do to change this harsh reality?
Here in Maryland, we can look to the MD Poor People’s Campaign Resolution to End Poverty in Maryland, including advocating for the Maryland General Assembly to resolve to:
- Raise the minimum wage to a living wage, expand unemployment insurance, and guarantee the right to form and join unions for all workers.
- Enact relief from student debt, housing debt, utilities debt, medical debt, and other household and personal debt that cannot be paid.
- Enact fair taxes on corporations and the wealthy, including by taxing investment income the same as income from work and otherwise making the tax code less punitive for poor and low-income people.
- In minority communities, prioritize green and socially beneficial industries, public health, public education, care work, public transit and roads, public utilities and community facilities, broadband access, sanitation and water services, climate resilience, sustainable food production and distribution as well as eliminating food deserts, libraries, and fire stations.
- Establish the right to food and food security—to have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy—should be realized for all Marylanders, regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic status, or race
- Strengthen the food and nutrition security safety net and expand access to food assistance programs to those who need them, regardless of citizenship or documentation status
On a national level, we can look to the Demands of the Poor People’s Campaign, including:
- The demand for the immediate implementation of federal and state living wage laws that are commensurate for the 21st century economy, guaranteed annual incomes, full employment and the right for all workers to form and join unions
- The demand for fully-funded social welfare programs that provide cash and in-kind assistance directly to the poor, including poor families, and an end to the attacks on SNAP, CHIP, HEAP, and other vital programs for the poor
- The demand for public infrastructure projects and sustainable, community-based and controlled economic initiatives that target poor urban and rural communities
- The demand that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of our country’s urgent needs around decent and affordable housing, free public education, a robust social safety net and social security, including the repeal of the 2017 tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations
- The demand that the nation and our lawmakers turn their immediate attention to passing policies and budget allocations that would end child poverty
iUSDA ERS - Definitions of Food Security. (2006). U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
iiHunger in Maryland. (2021, November 17). Maryland Food Bank.
iiiLalljee, J. (2022, July 20). It’s “the hungriest summer in recent history” after Washington cut off stimulus and inflation rages on. Business Insider.
ivGregg, A. (2022, July 19). Gas prices have plunged 10 percent since their June peak. The Washington Post.
vBahney, A. (2022, May 19). Rents in the US just hit another record high. CNN Business.
ivConsolidated Minimum Wage Table. (2022, July 1). U.S. Department of Labor.
viiBerner, J., & Hale, D. (2022, June 24). April Rental Report: Sun Belt Metros Drive Sustained Growth in Nationwide Rents. Realtor.Com Economic Research.
viiiWinck, B., & Hoff, M. (2022, May 11). Only a handful of US workers have seen wages outpace inflation since 2021. Business Insider.
ixStettner, A. (2021, August 5). 7.5 Million Workers Face Devastating Unemployment Benefits Cliff This Labor Day. The Century Foundation.
xWikipedia contributors. (2022, July 17). Build Back Better Act. Wikipedia.
xiParolin, Z., Collyer, S., & Curran, M. A. (2022, February). Absence of Monthly Child Tax Credit Leads to 3.7 Million More Children in Poverty in January 2022. Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy.