The just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual food security report is a half-empty, half-full story.
The half-full part is that the food insecurity rate, i.e., the percent of households that didn’t always have enough food to support “an active, healthy life for all members,” wasn’t significantly higher in 2012 than in 2011 — and in fact, has remained basically flat since the recession set in.
This is also true, though only since 2009, for what USDA terms the “very low food security” rate, i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes had to skimp on or skip meals because there wasn’t enough food for everyone.
The half-empty part is that the rate hasn’t dropped. So a very large number of people, including children, were at risk of hunger — or sometimes actually hungry — because they (or their parents) couldn’t afford to buy enough food.
Needless to say (I hope), both the food insecurity rate and the very low food security rate were considerably higher last year than in 2007 — one of many indicators that the Great Recession caused significant, continuing hardships for lower-income Americans.
Almost surely greater hardships than the figures show because, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the survey USDA uses doesn’t include homeless people.
Here are some of the top-line figures, a handful of breakouts and a few remarks on policy implications.
The Big Picture
- 17.6 million U.S. households (14.5%) were food insecure in 2012.
- Of these, more than 6.9 million (5.7%) had very low food insecurity.
- Well over 48.9 million people were food insecure and about 17.2 million of them sometimes without enough to eat.
- About 8.3 million children (11.3%) lived in households where they and/or other children were food insecure.
- And though adults generally protect children from hunger, 977,000 children and/or their siblings didn’t always get enough to eat.
Not surprisingly, food insecurity rates mirror disparate poverty and unemployment rates. Thus, for example:
- The food insecurity rate for black households was more than double the rate for white, non-Hispanic households — 24.6%, as compared to 11.2%.
- The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was nearly as high as the rate for black households — 23.3%.
- The food insecurity rate for single-mother families was 35.4% and the very low food security rate 12.7% — nearly four times the rate for married-couple families.
Also not surprisingly, state food insecurity rates varied markedly — from 20.9% in Mississippi to 8.7% in North Dakota, which weathered the recession remarkably well.
The food insecurity rate for the District of Columbia was 12% and the very low food security rate 4.5%. As with the state rates, these are two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small survey sample sizes.
Worse to Come?
Half the households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income cut-off for SNAP (food stamp) eligibility — received SNAP benefits all year and were nevertheless food insecure.
Confirmation, were any needed, that SNAP benefits are, for many families, too low now.
Yet, unless Congress does something unexpected, all SNAP households will lose a portion of their benefits in November. They’ll have, on average, less than $1.40 per person per meal — hardly enough for “a healthy, active life.”
Meanwhile, the House Republican leadership seems ready to introduce the missing nutrition part of the Farm Bill it passed in July.
A briefing paper Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently circulated indicates that, as expected, the proposal will cut SNAP by $40 billion or more over the next 10 years.
At least four million and perhaps as many as six million low-income people would lose their benefits, according to CBPP estimates.
At the same time, about 210,000 children would lose their eligibility for free school meals because it’s tied to their family’s participation in SNAP.
I’d like to hope, but really don’t that the USDA report would give House Republicans pause.
What it could do is drive another nail in the coffin of a split-the-difference compromise between the House and the Senate, which passed a Farm Bill with a much smaller SNAP cut.
Not that any cut is called for, mind you. We’ve already got 12.7 million more food insecure people in America than we had in 2007. And even the lower number speaks ill of a country with as much wealth as ours.