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Hunger in America: 2011 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics

World Hunger Education Service

This fact sheet is divided into four parts: Hunger, Poverty, Causes of poverty and Programs to address hunger and poverty. Click to go to a specific section.

Hunger in the United States

There has been a dramatic increase in hunger in the United States in the last three years, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Statistics are only available for 2008.  US statistics do not measure hunger, they measure food insecurity and security (explained below).

The Census Bureau statistics establish two grades of food insecurity.

Very low food security In these food-insecure households, normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food. 6.7 million US households (5.7 percent of all US households) had very low food security at some time during 2008, a 39 percent increase from 2007 (4.1 percent of US households). This was the largest increase ever recorded since nationally representative food security surveys were initiated in 1995, as well as the largest year-to-year percentage increase.

The defining characteristic of very low food security is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.  On average, households with very low food security at some time during the year experienced it in 7 or 8 months during the year and in 1 to 7 days in each of those months. Ninety-seven  percent of those classified as having low food security reported that an adult had cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food and 27 percent reported that an adult did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food (USDA  2010) .  (Click here for more information on very low food security.)

Who are the food insecure? Prevalence rates of very low food security were higher than the 5.7-percent national average for:

  • Households with incomes below the poverty line (19.3 percent)
  • Families with children, headed by single women (13.3 percent)
  • Black households (10.1 percent)
  • Hispanic households (8.8 percent)
  • Households in principal cities of metropolitan areas (6.6 percent)
Where do they live?  The image below shows food security status by state (USDA "Food Security").

Low food insecurity  10.4 million US households (8.9 percent of  households) had low food security in 2008, a 27 percent increase from 2007. These food-insecure households obtained enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using a variety of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets, participating in Federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries. (See below for more information on food assistance programs.)

Food insecurity Thus, counting those with low and very low food security, in 2008, 17 million households, 14.6 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States. Four million households became food insecure in 2008, the largest increase ever recorded (p. iii, USDA 2008). (To get population figures from family size figures, multiply family size numbers by 2.58, the average family size.)

Food insecure children In 2007, 15.8 percent of households with children were food insecure at some time during the year. In about half of those households, only adults were food insecure, but in 8.3 percent of households with children, one or more of the children were also food insecure at some time during the year. In 0.8 percent of households with children, one or more of the children experienced the most severe food-insecure condition measured by USDA, very low food security, in which meals were irregular and food intake was below levels considered adequate by caregivers (Nord 2009).

How much more spending on food would it take to make food insecure households food secure (a rough estimate)?  The median [a type of average] food-secure household spent 28 percent more on food than the median food-insecure household of the same size and household composition (USDA 2008 ).

Poverty in the United States

  • In 2009, 43.6 million people were poor, up from  39.8 million in 2008 and 37.3 million in 2007 .  The nation's official poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008 — the second statistically significant annual increase in the poverty rate since 2004. (Census Bureau 2010a p.13)
  • The poverty rate in 2009 was the highest since 1994, but was 8.1 percentage points lower than the poverty rate in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available. The number of people in poverty in 2009 is the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates are available.(Census Bureau 2010a p.13)
  • Between 2008 and 2009, the poverty rate increased for children under the age of 18 from 19.0 percent to 20.7 percent. Thus one in five children in the United States live in poverty. Almost half of these children (9.3 percent) live in extreme poverty. (Census Bureau 2010a p.13)
  • In 2009, the family poverty rate and the number of families in poverty were 11.1 percent and 8.8 million, respectively, up from 10.3 percent and 8.1 million in 2008. (Census Bureau 2010a p.18)
  • 19 million Americans( 6.3 percent) live in extreme poverty. This means their family’s cash income is less than half of the poverty line, or less than about $11,000 a year for a family of four. (Census Bureau 2010a p.19)
  • 16 million low-income households either paid more for rent and utilities than the federal government says is affordable or lived in overcrowded or substandard housing (CBPP 2007).
  • The percentage of people without health insurance increased to 16.7 percent in 2009 from 15.4 percent in 2008. The number of uninsured people increased to 50.7 million in 2009 from 46.3 million in 2008 (Census Bureau 2010a p. 22)

Causes of hunger and poverty

(Hunger is principally caused by poverty so this section will focus on causes of poverty.)

There are, we believe, three main causes of poverty in the United States: poverty in the world; the operation of the political and economic system in the United States which has tended to keep people from poor families poor, and the culture of inequality and poverty that can negatively influence the behavior of at least some people who are poor.

Poverty in the world  There are a lot of poor people in the world. An estimated 2 billion people are poor, and the same amount hungry (World Hunger Facts)  They are much, much, poorer than people in the United States.  As can be imagined, people do not want to be hungry and desperately poor.  In the world economic system there are two main ways in which relatively poor people have their income increased: through trade, and through immigration.  Trade, we believe, is the most important.

  • Trade. It is important to understand some basic economics. We in the United States live in a rich country, that has a  large amount of capital--machinery, etc.--to produce things relative to the amount of labor--people that want to work. Poor countries have a lot of labor, but relatively little capital.  There is a basic idea of economics--the factor price equalization theorem--that states that wages in rich countries will tend to go down and increase in poor countries through trade (Wikipedia 2010b). Thus China, with low wages, puts pressure on wages in the United States, as production is shifted to China from the United States. This movement of production from richer to poorer countries is initiated by corporations, not individuals, but it does  shift jobs and income to poorer countries and people, and has been doing so for the last 200 years, perhaps most markedly in the 30 years or so. Lower income people in the United States are particularly vulnerable to such shifts as their jobs tend to be the ones that are shifted.
  • Immigration.  A clear strategy for poor people is to go where there are higher paying jobs (often opposed to the alternative of no jobs at all). Thus immigration has been a major response to poverty by people in poor countries.

The operation of the US economic and political system  The operation of the US economic and political system has led to certain people/groups being relatively disenfranchised.

The normal operation of the economic system in the United States will create a significant amount of poverty. 

  • First, in a free enterprise economy, there is competition for jobs, with jobs going to the most qualified. On the other hand, there is almost always a significant amount of unemployment,  so that not everyone will get a job, with the major unemployment falling on the least qualified.  It might be tempting to indentify them as 'unemployable' but what is in fact happening is that the private enterprise system is not generating enough jobs to employ everyone. (Nor is governenment the 'employer of last resort.')
  • Secondly, the top echelon of business has the power to allocate the profits of the enterprise, and certainly they have allocated these profits to themselves in recent years.

The operation of the US political system, which should address the major problems of its citizens, is to a great extent not focused on fundamental concerns of poor people, but on other concerns.

  • Military and security expenditure represent half of US federal government discretionary expenditures, much larger than expenditures to assist poor people, and this budgeting is assisted by a strong web of political and financial connections, which has been termed the "military-industrial complex."
  • Corporations and the rich, through their ability to lobby Congress and the Administration effectively by such means as spending large amounts of money on lobbying efforts and on political campaigns of elected officials have succeeded in establishing their priorities, including tax breaks and subsidies. 
  • The Democratic party, which used to be a party of the 'working class' has now set its sights on the 'middle class' as the target base of voters to which it must appeal.

The culture of inequality and poverty

There are various aspects to the culture of poverty

  • People are typically segregated by income and often race.
  • Jobs are low paid and scarce.  This can lead to crime as a way of obtaining income, and also to unemployed men not willing to marry, which can play a significant role in developing a cultural model of single parent families.
  • The lack of income, as described in the poverty section above, creates problems, including poor housing, lack of food, health problems and the inability to address needs of one's children.
  • As a result of their situation (as well as human fraility), people living in poverty can themselves have patterns of behavior, such as alcoholism or a 'life of crime', that are harmful to them (Goldsmith 2010, Cohen 2010)
United States after-tax income by income level and share of total US income by income level (1979 to 2007/6)

Income level After-tax income 1979 ($) After-tax income 2007 ($) % Share of after-tax income 1979 % Share of after-tax income 2008
Lowest fifth 15,300 17,700 6.8 4.7
Second fifth 31,000 38,000 12.3 9.5
Middle fifth 44.100 55.300 16.5 14.3
Fourth fifth 57,700 77,700 22.3 20.3
Top fifth 101,700 198,300 42.4 52.1
Top 1 percent 346,600 1,319,700 7.5 16.3

Programs to address hunger and poverty

Hunger Fifty-five percent of  food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs (USDA 2008, p. iv). They were the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for the food stamp program (Wikipedia 2010), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) (Wikipedia 2010), and the National School Lunch Program (Wikipedia 2010). In addition there is a significant private effort to feed hungry people through food banks and allied agencies.

SNAP/Food stamps  The Food Stamp Program, the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, helps roughly 40 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. More than 75 percent of all food stamp participants are in families with children; nearly one-third of participants are elderly people or people with disabilities.  Unlike most means-tested benefit programs, which are restricted to particular categories of low-income individuals, the Food Stamp Program is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes. Under federal rules, to qualify for food stamps, a household must meet three criteria (some states have raised these limits):

  • Its total monthly income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or roughly $1,980 (about $23,800 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2010.

  • Its net income, or income after deductions are applied for items such as high housing costs and child care, must be less than or equal to the poverty line.

  • Its assets must fall below certain limits: households without an elderly member must have assets of $2,000 or less, and households with an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $3,000 or less. (Taken from CBPP  Food Stamps. Also see Wikipedia  SNAP  and USDA SNAP)

WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) WIC provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and referrals to health and other social services to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, and infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk. WIC participants receive checks or vouchers to purchase nutritious foods each month, including infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish. Other options such as fruits and vegetables, baby foods, and whole wheat bread were recently added. Participants family income must fall at or below 185 percent of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines (in 2010, $40,793 for a family of four). Eligibility is also granted to participants in other benefit programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Children are the largest category of WIC participants. Of the 8.7 million people who received WIC benefits each month in FY 2008, approximately 4.3 million were children, 2.2 million were infants, and 2.2 million were women. The cost of the program is $7.252 billion for WIC in FY2010. WIC is not an entitlement program: Congress does not set aside funds to allow every eligible individual to participate in the program. Instead, WIC is a Federal grant program for which Congress authorizes a specific amount of funding each year for program operations.

National School Lunch Program The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children from low income families, reaching 30.5 million children in 2008.  Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. (For the period July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010, 130 percent of the poverty level is $28,665 for a family of four; 185 percent is $40,793.) Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent by the program. Program cost was $9.3 billion in 2008. (USDA School Lunch Program)

Food Banks Food banks established in local communities obtain food principally from growers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers who in the normal course of business have excess food that they cannot sell. Other sources of food include the general public in the form of food drives and government programs that buy and distribute excess farm products, mostly to help support higher commodity prices (See USDA TEFAP).  Food banks then distribute food to a large number of non-profit community or government agencies, including  food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. (Wikipedia Food Banks)

Poverty

Perhaps the three principal programs that provide income and other assistance for poor people are the minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Other important  programs, not discussed here, include Medicaid and  the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and Social Security and Medicare.  (A recent study [CBPP 2010] estimates that 20 million people:13 million over 65, 1 million children and 6 million disabled or widowed people under 65 were lifted out of poverty by social security benefits.)

Minimum wage The United States enacts a minimum wage (as do some individual states) that tries to establish a floor for what can be paid as a wage by firms. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  In 2008, the official U.S. poverty level for a family of 4 was $21,834 ( Census Bureau "Poverty Thresholds").  With a 40 hour week, a family of 4 with one minimum wage earner would earn $15,080, only 69 percent of the poverty level. The minimum wage level is not indexed to inflation, which means that the real benefits will be eroded by inflation.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  The Earned Income Tax Credit is the mechanism through which, by filing a tax return, low income people and families can receive an income supplement.

The EITC is designed to encourage and reward work. In 2009, the EITC lifted an estimated 6.6 million people out of poverty, including 3.3 million children. The poverty rate among children would have been nearly one-third higher without the EITC. The EITC lifts more children out of poverty than any other single program or category of programs.  One way the EITC reduces poverty is by supplementing the earnings of minimum-wage workers. At the minimum wage’s current level, such a family can move out of poverty only if it receives the EITC as well as food stamps (CBPP EITC.)

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)  In 1996, TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which had been in existence since 1935. The TANF program provides block grants to states to provide assistance to needy families.  States have discretion on how to use the funds. The number of TANF recipients fell substantially in the first five years of the program, in part due to a significant increase in the number of single parents who work, but also due to other factors, such as an inability of families to meet the regulations.  Studies of families that stop receiving TANF assistance show that 60 percent of former recipients are employed—typically at poverty-level salaries between $6 and $8.50 an hour—while 40 percent are not employed. Lack of available child care can well keep single mothers from working as required, for example.  Other factors that undermine TANF’s contribution to people’s security include a five-year time limitation on benefits;  permitting benefits to legal immigrants only 5 years after establishing legal immigration; and a declining level of real funding for the program (Coven 2005). (see CBPP TANF and Wikipedia TANF.)

Bibliography

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Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2007.  "Poverty and Hardship Affect Tens of Millions of Americans." http://www.cbpp.org/12-20-07pov.htm

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Cohen, Patricia. 2010.  The idea of a 'culture of poverty' makes a comeback Patricia Cohen New York Times

Coven, Martha.  2005. “An Introduction to TANF.” The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.  http://www.cbpp.org/1-22-02tanf2.htm

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