Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.

 

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