The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center is one more indication that the recession is by no means over for a vast number of Americans.
In 2010, the nationwide food hardship rate was barely lower than in 2009 — 18%, as compared to 18.3%. In the other words, nearly one out of five people in this country sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.
Things were worse at the end of 2008. But, for reasons as yet unexplained, the food hardship rate for the last quarter of 2010 was the highest since Congress passed the temporary increase in food stamp benefits in the first quarter of 2009.
As I’ve said before, “food hardship” is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms “food insecurity”.
A family is counted as having experienced food hardship if the member surveyed answers in the affirmative when asked, “Have there been times during the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you and your family needed?”
Unlike the survey the Census Bureau conducts for USDA, the Gallup sample is large enough to allow reasonably reliable breakouts by small geographic areas and also year-over-year comparisons at the state level.
This makes the report uniquely valuable in two ways.
First, it’s a fine advocacy tool because it provides food hardship rates for every Congressional district in the country. Want to tell your Representative to support the President’s proposed fix for the recent cutback in the food stamp boost? Cite the food hardship rate in your district.
Second, it lets us drill down below the nationwide figure in a variety of ways. We get figures not only for Congressional districts, but for each major region, each state and the District of Columbia and each of the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas, i.e., city-centered geographic areas defined for use by the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies.
So we learn, for example, that:
- Food hardship rates are highest in the Southeast and Southwest. Indeed, 12 of the 20 states with the highest 2010 rates are in these regions.
- Rates are at least 20% in 21 states, with Mississippi topping them all at nearly 29%.
- Rates are 15% or higher in all but five states.
- In no state is the rate below 10%.
- Here in our nation’s capital, the rate is 18.9%, putting the District again in the middle of the state ranking.
In short, as the FRAC report says, “food hardship is a problem in every corner of America, and should be of concern to every member of Congress.”
Ah yes, but is it?
FRAC attributes the persistently high food hardship rates to the ongoing jobs crisis. As it notes, the 2010 U-6 rates — the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment — were generally comparable to those in 2009 and rose a bit toward the end of the year.
And even the U-6 measure understates the total number of jobless people who’d like to — and need to — work because it doesn’t include people who gave up looking more than a year ago.
But both the White House and Congress seem to have put the jobs crisis behind them. The hot debate is how much and where to cut spending. And, Republican assertions notwithstanding, spending cuts mean job losses.
The current spending-cut focus spells trouble for people who urgently need food assistance in other, more direct ways.
The continuing resolution the House passed in late February would cut funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) by about 10%. It would also cut funding for several other programs that help feed low-income people.
These cuts would theoretically be only temporary, since a new federal budget year begins on October 1. But they suggest that President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 proposals to address hunger and poor nutrition could face the chopping block.
Let’s hope all those members of Congress with high food hardship rates decide that three squares a day for the nearly 48 million poor people in this country are a better investment than, say, those still-unready, way-over-budget F-25 fighter planes.
UPDATE: Hope may spring eternal, but the Welfare Reform Act recently introduced by some House Republicans would, among other things, eliminate what remains of the funding to keep food stamp benefits at the higher level they’ve been since 2009, when the economic recovery act was passed.
Since this posting was first published, I’ve written another explaining why the bill threatens all safety net programs.