Hunger in America: 2016 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts
Hunger in the United States
The estimated percentage of U.S. households that were food insecure declined significantly in 2015 to 12.7 percent of U.S. households (15.8 million households, approximately one in eight). This is down significantly from 2014, when 14.0 percent of households (17.5 million households, approximately one in seven), were food insecure. It continues a downward trend from 14.9 percent food insecure in 2011, the highest percentage ever recorded. However the 2015 prevalence of food insecurity was still above the 2007 pre-recessionary level of 11.1 percent. (Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.) In 2015, the percentage of households with food insecurity in the severe range—very low food security—also declined significantly. (Coleman-Jensen 2016b)
- In 2015, 5.0 percent of U.S. households (6.3 million households) had very low food security, down from 5.6 percent in 2014. In this more severe range of food insecurity, the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources (Coleman-Jensen 2016b) .
- Children were food insecure at times during the year in 7.8 percent of U.S. households
with children (3.0 million households), down significantly from 9.4 percent in 2014. These 3.0 million households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children While children are usually shielded by their parents, who go hungry themselves, from the disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake that characterize very low food security, both children and adults experienced instances of very low food security in 0.7 percent of households with children (274,000 households) in 2014 (Coleman-Jensen 2016b).
- The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably from state to state. Estimated prevalence of food
insecurity in 2013-15 ranged from 8.5 percent in North Dakota to 20.8 percent in Mississippi. (Coleman-Jensen 2016b).
- For households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men, women and men living alone, and Black- and Hispanic-headed households,the rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average. (Coleman-Jensen 2016b).
- About 59 percent of food-insecure households in the survey reported that in the previous month, they had participated in one or more of the three largest Federal nutrition assistance programs (SNAP; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and National School Lunch Program).
- Background: The United States changed the name of its definitions in 2006 that eliminated references to hunger, keeping various categories of food insecurity. This did not represent a change in what was measured. Very low food insecurity (described as food insecurity with hunger prior to 2006) means that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food. This means that people were hungry (in the sense of “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by want of food” [Oxford English Dictionary 1971]) for days each year.
Poverty in the United States
The official poverty measure is published by the United States Census Bureau and shows that:
- In 2015 there were 43.1 million people in poverty, 3.5 million less than in 2014. (Proctor 2016, p. 12-14)
- The official poverty rate in 2015 was 13.5 percent, down 1.2 percentage points from 14.8 percent in 2014.
However, the 2015 poverty rate was 1.0 percentage point higher than in 2007, the year before the most recent recession . The poverty rate was at 22.4 percent in 1959, the first year for poverty estimates. (Proctor 2016, p. 12-14)
- The 2015 poverty rate for Blacks was 24.1 (down from 26.2 percent in 2014), for Hispanics 21.4 (down from 23.6 percent in 2014), and for Asians 11.4 percent (not statistically different from 2014). For non-Hispanic whites the poverty rate was 9.1 percent (Proctor 2016, p. 12-4).
- The poverty rate for children under 18 was 19.7 percent in 2015, down from 21.1 percent in 2014 and the number of children in poverty was 14.5 million, down from 15.5 million in 2014. Children represented 23.1 percent of the total population and 33.6 percent of people in poverty (Proctor 2016, p. 14).
- 19.4 million Americans live in extreme poverty. This means their family’s cash income is less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four. They represented 6.1 percent of all people and 45.1 percent of those in poverty (Proctor 2016, p. 17-19).
The supplemental poverty measure (SPM) was first published in 2011 by the Census Bureau and addresses concerns that have been raised about the official poverty measure. A principal concern is that the official poverty measure does not reflect the effects of key government policies that alter the disposable income of families and thus their poverty status, such as the SNAP/food stamp program, the school lunch program, and taxes. (For a good brief discussion of these issues see below and also U.S. Census Bureau 2011, p.1-3 or an online infographic, U.S. Census Bureau How Census Measures Poverty.”) Taking these adjustments into account, the SPM for 2015 showed 2.2 million more people in poverty in 2012, compared to the official poverty statistics (Renwick 2016) .
The SPM also enables measurement of the impact of certain poverty programs on poverty.
- People 65 and older had a supplemental poverty rate of 13.7 percent, equating to 6.5 million people in poverty. Excluding Social Security from income would more than triple the poverty rate for this group, resulting in a poverty rate of 49.7 percent.
- Not including refundable tax credits (the Earned Income Tax Credit and the refundable portion of the child tax credit) in resources would have resulted in an additional 9.2 million individuals falling into poverty, a 2.9 percentage point increase.
- Taking account of other noncash benefits also lowered poverty rates. For example, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits lowered the overall poverty rate by 1.4 percentage points or 4.6 million people. (Renwick 2016, 12-14)
Causes of hunger and 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, to a lesser extent, actual physical and behavioral issues among some people who are poor.
Poverty in the world There are a lot of poor people in the world. To take those at the bottom, an estimated 1 billion people are poor (at the $1.25 income per day level, and 800 million hungry . (World Hunger Facts) They are much, much, poorer than people in the United States. 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 30 years or so. Lower income people in the United States are particularly vulnerable to such shifts.
- 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. (Probably, conflict has been an even larger reason for the movement of poor people.)
- The implication of trade and immigration for people in the United States who are subject to this competition is that jobs are scarce and there is downward pressure on wages. Large numbers of jobs have been moved ‘off-shore.’
The operation of the US economic 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 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 identify them as ‘unemployable’ but what is in fact happening is that the private enterprise system is not generating enough jobs to employ everyone.
- Secondly, the top echelon of business has some 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. 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 that 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 it must appeal to.
The culture of inequality
- 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 inability to address needs of one’s children.
- As a result of their situation, some people living in poverty can themselves have patterns of behavior, such as alcoholism or a ‘life of crime,’ that are destructive to them.
Programs to address hunger and poverty
Sixty-two percent of food-insecure households in the 2013 survey reported that in the previous month, they had participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs (Coleman-Jensen 2014b, p. 2). The programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the relatively new name for the former food stamp program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program.
- SNAP is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. In 2014, it helped 46 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet.
- In fiscal year 2014, the federal government spent $76 billion on SNAP. About 92 percent went directly to benefits that households used to purchase food. Of the remaining 8 percent, about 5 percent was used for state administrative costs, including eligibility determinations, employment and training and nutrition education for SNAP households, and anti-fraud activities. About 3 percent went for other food assistance programs
- Seventy percent of all food stamp participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter of participants are elderly people or people with disabilities.
- The average SNAP recipient received about $125 a month (or about $4.17 a day) in fiscal year 2014.
- The SNAP benefit formula targets benefits according to need: very poor households receive larger benefits than households closer to the poverty line since they need more help affording an adequate diet
- 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 who have low incomes (no more that 130 percent of the poverty line, and minimal assets (up to $2000 or $3,250, depending on the circumstances).
WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children)
- 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.
- 6.4 million infants and children under five and and 2 million women received WIC benefits in 2014.
- The cost of the program is approximately $7 billion annually.
- 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.
- 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.
Source: CBPP 2014c.
National School Lunch Program
- The National School Lunch Program is open to all children enrolled in a participating school. Approximately 95 percent of public schools participate. During the 2012-13 school year 30.7 million children in more than 98,433 schools and residential child care institutions participated in the National School Lunch Program.
- On a typical school day, 21.5 million of these 30.7 million total children, or 70.5 percent, were receiving free or reduced price lunches
- Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Household income determines if a child is eligible to receive free or reduced price meals, or must pay most of the cost. To receive free lunch, household income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level; for reduced price lunch, income must be between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level.
- Reimbursable meals must meet federal nutrition standards. National School Lunch Program lunches provide one third or more of the recommended levels for key nutrients
- Studies show that proper nutrition improves a child’s behavior, school performance, and overall cognitive development. A healthy eating environment teaches children good nutrition and the elements of a proper diet, which can have positive effects on children’s eating habits and physical well-being throughout life.
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, for older people, Social Security and Medicare.
- 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 federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. ( As of August 1, 2014, 23 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage (CBPP 2014).
- The minimum wage is not nearly sufficient to raise many people out of poverty. In 2014, the official U.S. poverty level for a family of 4 was $24,008. (See Census Bureau “Poverty Thresholds”.) With a 40 hour week, a family of 4 with one minimum wage earner (working 52 weeks a year, typically with no paid vacation) would earn $15,080, only 62 percent of the poverty level.
- The minimum wage is not indexed for inflation. Thus its value over the years has been diminished substantially, as increases in the minimum wage have not kept up with inflation.
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
- The EITC is the mechanism through which, by filing a tax return, low income people and families can receive an income supplement. It reduces poverty directly by supplementing the earnings of low-wage workers, and is designed to encourage and reward work.
- The amount of EITC depends on a recipient’s income, marital status, and number of children. During the 2012 tax year, the average EITC was $2,982 for a family with children compared to just $277 for a family without children.
- In 2013, the EITC, together with the child tax credit benefited 31.7 million people, lifting 9.4 million of those benefited out of poverty, including 5 million children.
- One way the EITC reduces poverty is by supplementing the earnings of minimum-wage workers.At the federal minimum wage’s current level, a two-parent family with two children with a full-time, minimum-wage worker can move above the poverty line only if it receives the EITC as well as SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
(Source: 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 has fallen substantially, from 12.32 million in 1996, the last year of the Aid to Dependent Children program and the beginning of TANF to 3.46 million in 2014. This decline has happened even though the poverty rate has increased since 1996.
- The number of families receiving TANF benefits for every 100 families with children in poverty has declined from 82 families in 1979 to 26 families today. TANF benefits have lost a fifth of their value since 1996 in most states and leave families far below the poverty line (CBPP Welfare Reform/TANF).
- This decline is due to factors such as the five year time limitation on benefits, declining real levels of funding, some increase in the number of single parents who work, and 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. (See CBPP TANF, Wikipedia TANF. and HHS 2015)
Last updated September 2016. The section “Programs to Address Hunger and Poverty” not yet updated.
1. To get population figures from family size figures, multiply family size numbers by 2.58, the average family size.
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