Food insecurity data symptom of larger affliction

Food insecurity, though a big problem, isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Here’s the good news from this week’s Department of Agriculture report on food security in America: Fewer American households reported serious disruptions in access to food in 2010 than in 2009.

Here’s the bad news: Overall, the number didn’t budge among Americans experiencing some level of food insecurity due to a lack of money. Nearly 49 million Americans — 16 million of whom are children — experienced hunger or the threat of hunger* in 2010 — a year in which, by official measures, the economy was improving.

Here’s where the bad news tells us: Food insecurity, though a big problem, isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom.

In a lecture at the University of Iowa Wednesday night and in a recent New York Times commentary, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich diagnosed the real problem: stagnant income and wages.

It’s a problem IPP has recently noted, too. Our State of Working Iowa 2011 report found that median wages have stagnated and, adjusted for inflation, are lower now than they were a decade ago. And while the employment picture in 2010 improved, too many of those jobs pay lower wages than workers’ previous jobs — or are simply low-wage jobs, period.

The 2010 food security figures show that combating this particular symptom of stagnating incomes and wages — and others like it — requires different policy strategies. To name just a few: Increasing the wages and incomes of the middle- and working-class will require boosting the minimum wage, enforcing labor laws already on the books and making it easier for workers to unionize and enter collective bargaining contracts with employers, and encouraging employers to pay living wages.

Now, how about some more good news?

The data from recent years also suggests that stimulus measures in the 2009 Recovery Act worked as intended. Food insecurity elevated as the recession worsened in 2008; despite upward-creeping unemployment in early 2009, however, food insecurity held steady. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, was boosted by the Recovery Act, increasing benefits and eligibility.

In other words, we can shape the economy; policy can improve situations.

Effective policy, of course, requires a correct diagnosis. In this case, the correct diagnosis requires looking at things a bit more holistically — looking at wages and other economic indicators in conjunction with food security numbers.

* Each year, the USDA measures food security — the “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Participants in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey — a nationally representative sample — are asked to respond to a series of statements and questions regarding the food situation in the household in the preceding 12 months. Household respondents responding negatively to several questions are classified as having “low food security;” those with negative responses to several questions and indicating disruptions in eating patterns due to a lack of resources are classified as having “very low food security.”

In the three years immediately following the onset of the recession (December 2007), the food insecurity rate among households has held steady at about 14.5 percent. In 2010, that meant 48.8 million individuals – 16 million of whom are children. This is a significant (both statistically and numerically) increase from the pre-recession years, when only about 36 million individuals, or 11 percent of households, experienced food insecurity.

Sample sizes are too small to provide one-year estimates for states; however, USDA does provide three-year averages. In Iowa, an average of 12.1 percent of households experienced food insecurity over the 2008-10 period, more than a third of whom experienced very low food security.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Author: iowapolicypoints

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. We focus on tax and busget issues, the Iowa economy, and energy and environmental policy. By providing a foundation of fact-based, objective research and engaging the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives, IPP advances effective, accountable and fair government.

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