Food insecurity is a major problem in the US. The food stamp program–renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008–helps, but that program is now threatened by the Trump administration. An organization of the food insecure, echoing the Councils of the Unemployed of the 1930s, may well be needed if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing hunger.
The extent of food insecurity
The federal government measures food insecurity using a yearly set of questions that are part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS). The questions asked, as a Hamilton Project study on food insecurity and SNAP explains, are about:
households’ resources available for food and whether adults or children in the household adjusted their food intake—cutting meal size, skipping meals, or going for a day without food—because of lack of money for food. A household is considered to be “food insecure” if, due to a lack of resources, it had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of its members. The more-severe categorization of “very low food security” status describes those food-insecure households in which members’ food intake was reduced and their normal eating patterns disrupted at some point during the year because of a lack of resources for food. Food insecurity and very low food security are measured at the household level, though questions about adults and children are asked separately.
Officially, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure in 2015. Five percent were very low food secure.
The extent of food insecurity is significantly greater in households with children under 18. As we see below, 16.6 percent of all households with children suffered from food insecurity in 2015. In more than half of those households, the adults were able to shelter their children. However, both children and adults were food insecure in 7.8 percent of all households with children.
Food insecurity trends
Food insecurity is a problem in the United States even during periods of economic expansion. As the following chart shows, more than one in ten households suffered from food insecurity during the growth years of 2001 to 2007. The percentage of households experiencing food insecurity spiked with the start of the Great Recession and was slow to decline. Although it is now falling, it is unclear whether it will return to pre-recession levels.
And, not surprisingly, non-white households are far more likely to experience food insecurity than white households.
It is also important to recognize that annual rates of food insecurity tend to minimize the true extent of the problem. That is because households tend to move into and then out of food insecurity over time. In other words, it is often a temporary problem. Thus, many more families will experience food insecurity over a period of time than suggested by the annual numbers. Of course, even one year of food insecurity can have serious health consequences.
As the Hamilton Institute study notes:
Annual rates of food insecurity mask the extent of the food insecurity problem. Using the Current Population Survey, we can follow large numbers of households across two consecutive years, allowing us to compare food security status over time. In consecutive years during the post-recession period 2008–14, over 24 percent of households with children experienced food insecurity in one or both years: 9 percent of household experienced food insecurity in consecutive years, and an additional 15 percent of households experienced food insecurity in only one of the two years.
SNAP is one of the most important federal responses to food insecurity. To qualify for food stamps, a household needs to earn at or below 130% of the poverty line—or about $26,000 or less a year for a family of three. As of May 2017, 42.3 million people were receiving food stamps. Without the SNAP program, many more people would be experiencing food insecurity.
The following figures show the rise in the number and percentage of people receiving food stamps, and the average monthly food stamp benefit. The growth in the number of food stamp recipients over the 2001 to 2007 period of economic growth reflects the explosion in inequality and weak job growth. And the need for food assistance exploded with the Great Recession and has remained high because of the weak economic recovery that has followed.
The challenge ahead
Determined to slash all non-military discretionary programs, President Trump’s proposed budget calls for cutting almost $200 billion over the next decade from the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program. That is a cut of approximately 25 percent.
With weak job growth and stagnant wages likely in the years ahead, any cut to the SNAP budget will mean a new spike in hunger, especially for children. One has to wonder when people will reach their limit and begin to organize and fight back.
Those struggling with food insecurity might well take inspiration from the work of the unemployed councils of the 1930s. These councils provided a basis for the unemployed to resist rent increases and evictions, as well as fight for public assistance, unemployment insurance, and a public works program. The councils also strongly supported union organizing efforts, ensuring that the unemployed respected union picket lines. In return, many unions supported the work of the councils.
The unemployed in the 1930s eventually recognized that their situation was largely the result of the dysfunctional workings of the economic system of the time and they organized to defend their rights and change that system. Households experiencing hunger today need to develop that same understanding about the root cause of their situation and respond accordingly.