How Public Policies Helped Drive Down the Family Food Insecurity Rate

My recent post on SNAP (food stamp) benefits used the latest food (in)security figures to show that those benefits don’t always provide sufficient supplemental nutrition assistance. This is surely true. But it’s a relatively small slice of the story the new report tells.

So here’s the upside and how we might at least partly account for it.

Less Food Insecurity and Less Out-in-Out Hunger

First off, as I noted, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a significantly lower food insecurity rate for 2015 — 12.7% of households, as compared to 14% in 2014. The drop translates into well over 1.5 million households or roughly 5.8 million fewer food insecure people.

The “very low food security” rate also declined, from 5.6% to a flat 5%. So roughly 2.9 million fewer people lived in households where at least one member at least sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

New Low for Food Insecure Children

As in the past, families with children had a higher food insecurity rate than households without — 16.6%, as compared to 10.9%.

But children themselves were food insecure in only 7.8% of families — roughly 3 million. And only 0.7% — about 274,000 — had such severe food insecurity that a child sometimes had to skip a meal or even go without food for a day.

“Only” may seem to trivialize the child hunger problem. But the share of households with food insecure children was the lowest since USDA began tracking the way it does now, in 1998.

How the Economy Helped

The recovering labor market surely helps account for the lower food insecurity and hunger rates. The former peaked at 14.9% in 2011 and the latter ticked back up to 5.7%.

The unemployment rate than averaged 8.9%. It was probably around 5% when households were asked about their food security last year. So more had a breadwinner actually earning bread. And fewer breadwinners were working part-time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

Average hourly wages in the private sector grew, though not as much as labor advocates — and presumably the workers they advocate for — would have liked.

At the same time, auto fuel prices plummeted. And prices for food and most other commonly-purchased goods and services barely increased — or not at all.

These three factors together suggest that some households had enough more to spend on food — and could make the extra go far enough — to shift them into the food secure majority.

How Policies Probably Helped, Though Not Food Related

I earlier cited two public policies that almost surely help explain the marked growth in median household incomes last year. Both minimum wage increases and the Federal Reserve’s decision to let the labor market get tighter presumably meant more money in more families’ budgets for food.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests other policy-related factors. These include the Affordable Care Act, especially, it says, in states that expanded their Medicaid programs.

We shouldn’t altogether discount other ACA features that could have given households more money to spend on food — the substantial subsidies for low-income people who purchased their health insurance on an exchange, for example, and the extended funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

How Nutrition Assistance Policies Helped

SNAP caseloads have steadily shrunk as workers who’d lost their jobs during the Great Recession found others — or got more hours back into their schedules. They’ve unfortunately also shrunk because some very poor people couldn’t find jobs or slots in a training program that would keep them eligible for SNAP.

The Center, however, suggests that SNAP may have reached more eligible individuals and families last year. We know it reached a near-record high in 2014, the latest year USDA has published rates for.

The policy angle here is partly the agency’s effort to encourage outreach by awarding bonuses to states that achieved the highest — and most improved — participation rates.

But it’s also both state and local efforts to bring eligible households into SNAP just because they’d then have more funds to combat hunger. (House Republicans, as you probably know, would do away with this “incentive” by converting the program to a block grant.)

We should also look to other nutrition assistance programs, including the free and reduced-price schools meals the federal government subsidizes.

They’re obviously a factor in food security rates, since parents have more to spend on the meals and snacks they alone can provide if their children get fed for free — or for very little — when school’s in session.

The Center cites one relevant policy change that can help account for last year’s lower family food insecurity and hunger rates — community eligibility.

It’s an option high-poverty schools have to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all their students. More low-income children will get them because it eliminates applications barriers and the stigma children often feel when they know their peers will know they’re poor or nearly so.

The option became available to schools nationwide for the first time in 2014-15. More than 14,200 adopted it then. An additional 4,000 or so joined them the following school year, the first half of which falls within the USDA survey time frame.

So parents of more than 8.5 million children could have saved the costs of ten meals a week for each for roughly half the year. These were not all low-income parents, but at least 40% probably were.

Schools that adopt community eligibility must serve free breakfasts, as well as lunches. But some schools have long served them — never as many as lunches, but the gap is closing. In 2014-15, more than 91% of schools that served lunches also served breakfasts.

Well over 11.6 million low-income children got them on an average day — about 474,600 more than during the prior school year. The Food Research and Action Center, the source of these figures, attributes the increase in part to community eligibility.

A separate, though possibly related reason is that more schools have begun serving breakfasts in the classroom or some other way that doesn’t require children to eat in the cafeteria before the school day begins.

They’ve thus eliminated both the logistical barrier posed by having to get kids to school extra early and the stigma kids may feel because it’s obvious their parents haven’t fed them.

Four states and the District of Columbia had passed laws requiring at least their high-poverty schools to serve “breakfast after the bell” by 2015.

So here’s another way that public policies have played a role in reducing food insecurity and out-in-out hunger for both children and their parents. Still a lot more to do, but we know a lot about what that should be.

More than I’ve covered here, but we know quite a lot about the rest too.

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