When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.

That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.

These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.

Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.

We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.

Food Costs and SNAP

The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.

The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.

More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.

During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.

Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.

The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.

Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.

SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.

In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.

So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.

We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”

The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.

In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.

 

 

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New Food Insecurity Figures Bolster Case Against Food Stamp Cuts

September 6, 2013

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.

Demographic Disparities

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.