Some Policy Lessons From USDA’s Food Security Report

No one, I suppose, needs to be reminded that public benefits programs are in the bull’s eye. Federal nutrition assistance programs are no exception

Funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has been cut, and the House of Representatives has voted to trim it further. It’s approved cuts for other food assistance programs as well.

The House budget plan would also radically reduce funding for SNAP (the food stamp program) — this by converting it into a block grant.

And who knows what will happen when the Super Committee starts looking for budget savings to meet its $1.5 trillion target?

All these threats make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest food security report especially timely.

Because the results tell us that the main federal nutrition assistance programs are working — not as well as they might, but well enough to keep hunger at bay in a very high percentage of low-income households.

In 2010, the percent of households that experienced food insecurity remained essentially flat — 14.5% as compared to 14.7% in 2009. The difference, USDA says, is not statistically significant.

What the rate means is that an estimated 85.5% of households had “enough food for an active, healthy life” for all members at all times during the year — virtually the same as in 2008, the first full year of our Great Recession.

This in itself is noteworthy.

More noteworthy is the fact that the percent of households experiencing very low food insecurity, i.e., those with such limited resources that some member(s) sometimes had to cut back on or altogether skip meals, dropped from 5.7% to 5.4%.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that the biggest declines were among households with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, i.e.,  households that could have been eligible for one or more of the main food assistance programs.

Those with children, for example, generally would have been eligible for WIC and/or free or reduced-price school meals. Their very low food security rate dropped from 2.9% to 2.1%.

This is hardly to say that all would be well if we could just protect the key nutrition assistance programs from the cost-cutting impulses of those in Congress who view federal “welfare” spending as a budget-busting failure.

Consider, for example, that food insecurity rates were less than half the 2010 rate for all three years before the recession set in. Or that barely more than half the households with incomes low enough to be eligible received food stamp benefits for any part of the year.

Of those that got them for the entire year, 49.3% still suffered from low or very low food security. So it seems reasonable to suppose that the benefits didn’t cover the costs of as much food as they needed.

And, indeed, we see that better-off households, i.e., those with incomes over 185% of the FPL, spent 30% more on food than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket USDA uses to calculate food stamp benefits.

Households at the upper end of the eligibility range might have had resources to fill the gap. The poorer would probably have had to make do with less food than an “active, healthy life” requires.

Thus we see much higher food insecurity rates among populations with the highest poverty rates.

For example, the food insecurity rate for single mothers with children was 20.6% higher than the overall household rate. For black households, it was 10.6% higher and for Hispanic households, 11.7% higher.

Yet other data suggest that poverty alone may not account for disparities among food insecurity rates.

We see big differences among the three-year rates that USDA uses to compensate for relatively low state-level survey samples.

In 2008-10, the averages ranged from 19.4% in Mississippi and 18.8% in Texas (knew you’d want that one) to 7.1% in North Dakota. They don’t align neatly with differences in poverty rates.

The District of Columbia, for example, had higher poverty rates than the overall U.S. rates for the three-year period. Yet its average food insecurity rate was lower than the national average — 13% as compared to 14.6% nationwide. Its very low food security rate was also lower — 4.5% as compared to 5.6%.

The message here is that food security hinges in part on state and local policies. It’s hardly coincidental, I think, that USDA had to intervene in Texas because the government had made choices that created huge backlogs in food stamp applications.

The largest threats now, however, seem to be at the federal level. Spending cuts in nutrition programs will affect low-income people in every state. They’ll also further depress consumer demand — and thus cause more job losses.

Which will, of course, drive up the number of households that can’t afford to keep enough food on the table for a healthy life.

4 Responses to Some Policy Lessons From USDA’s Food Security Report

  1. David Schwartzman says:

    Thanks Kathryn for this information. Nevertheless, in 2009 D.C. had the highest rate of child food insecurity in the nation compared to the 50 states, data found in the Feeding America report “Map the Meal Gap 2011) (This data was highlighted in this column:
    August 26, 2011 New York Times, Failing Forward, By CHARLES M. BLOW).

    I could not find child food insecurity specifically documented by state (see Table 4) in the USDA report. Perhaps the more affluent individuals and families with no children in DC are responsible for the overall low food security rates cited below.

  2. David Schwartzman says:

    Sorry, a typo crept into my posting. Should read:
    “Perhaps the more affluent individuals and families with no children in DC are responsible for the overall low food insecurity rates cited below.”

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to minimize the problems of food insecurity in the District, David. As you say, Feeding America estimated the 2009 food insecurity rate for children at 32.3%. Its estimate is based on data from a variety of sources. So it’s difficult to compare to USDA’s data even for the same year.

    The Food Research and Action Center recently issued figures based on 2009–10 survey data from Gallop. As I wrote at the time, these show that the food hardship rate among D.C. families with children was 37.4%. Food hardship is more or less equivalent to USDA’s “low food security” rate.

    USDA doesn’t break out for adults and children or for families with and without. And it uses a three-year average to compensate for the small sample size. Again, we can’t compare applies to apples.

    Still, your hypothesis seems reasonable to me, given the other figures. It’s certainly the case that more affluent households bring food insecurity rates down, no matter what survey or combination we’re dealing with.

    My basic point, however, is that food insecurity rates and poverty rates don’t align neatly. There seem to be other factors involved, including policy choices and the involvement of nonprofit advocacy and service organizations.

  4. […] news about food insecurity either. As I previously wrote, the District’s food insecurity rate last year was 13%. This puts the District above a […]

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