High rates of food insecurity, food stamp use show Americans’ economic vulnerability, says social welfare expert

Most Americans don’t think they’ll ever be faced with the question of how they will get their next meal, but a recent study co-authored by a social welfare expert at Washington University in St. Louis shows that at least 42 percent of the U.S. population will deal with food insecurity during their lifetime.

“Food insecurity goes beyond the fear of going hungry,” explains Mark R. Rank, Ph.D., the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at the university’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work. “Food insecurity means that people are unable to provide themselves and their families nutritionally adequate food on a regular basis.

At least 42 percent of the U.S. population will be faced with the fear of going hungry during their lifetime.
At least 42 percent of the U.S. population will be faced with the fear of going hungry during their lifetime.

“This is a significant public health concern,” he adds. “Food insecurity has been shown to be closely related to health problems, including an increased risk in the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, and the impairment of psychological and cognitive functioning among children.”

Food insecurity is measured through an 18-question survey developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The questions include items such as worrying about having enough food to eat, being unable to afford balanced meals, or having to cut or skip meals as a result of not having enough money.

Survey respondents who answer affirmatively to three or more of the questions are considered food insecure.

“In addition to this high percentage of Americans dealing with food insecurity, 51 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will need to use food stamps,” says Rank.

Food nutrition safety net ‘under attack’

Rank notes that the high rates of food insecurity and food stamp use are examples of the economic vulnerability that many Americans will face during their lives and shows the need for legislators to strengthen social services rather than limit them.

“The food nutrition safety net that was designed to help alleviate hunger has been under attack in recent years,” he says.

“The welfare reform changes of 1996 tightened the eligibility requirements and benefits associated with the Food Stamp Program, and recent proposals have sought to reduce the overall enrollment in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Legislators need to recognize that these actions will only increase food insecurity in the U.S.”

Rank says that legislators also need to pay special attention to the rising number of individuals and families who are falling below the poverty line as these households are by definition at a significant risk of experiencing hunger.

His study, co-authored with Thomas A. Hirschl, Ph.D., a professor of development sociology at Cornell University, found that race and education had a significant impact on food stamp use and food insecurity.

“Sixty-four percent of adults with less than 12 years of education will use food stamps,” says Rank. “More than 85 percent of African-Americans will use food stamps at some point in their lives.”

These findings were consistent with Rank and Hirschl’s earlier analyses of the risk of poverty and welfare use among African-Americans and those who fail to graduate from high school.

Rank says this current study, “The Likelihood of Using Food Stamps During the Adulthood Years,” to be published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, is based on a unique analysis of 30 years of information taken from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) that were then constructed into a series of life tables. The PSID is a longitudinal survey of a representative sample of U.S. individuals and their families interviewed annually since 1968.

Funding for the PSID has come from a number of government agencies, foundations and other organizations. While the PSID’s original funding agency was the Office of Economic Opportunity of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the study’s major funding sources are now the National Science Foundation and the National Institute on Aging.