Although the economy is improving and plenty of government and privately funded food programs exist to help those in need, an alarming number of people are going hungry in this country.
For many, unemployment and poverty rates have remained stubbornly high since the 2008 recession, and the number of households receiving nutrition assistance from the federal food stamp program has increased by about 50 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief program.
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WHY THIS MATTERS
As the economy begins to pick up, a small but growing number of states are reinstating a work requirement for low-income, able-bodied childless adults to qualify for food stamps. Although many are college students who do qualify for these benefits, hundreds of thousands of other people will be thrown off the program at a time of persistent hunger and when private food charities are already overstretched.
About six in 10 low income or struggling “food insecure” households, as the government calls them, participate in at least one of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps; the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC); and the National School Lunch Program. Yet more than 17.6 million households had limited or uncertain access to adequate food supplies in 2012 (the latest year for which federal figures are available). “About 7 million of these households had members who went hungry or skipped meals, an indication of very low food security,” the Feeding America report noted.
Who are these people and why can’t they afford to eat?
John Zogby, a veteran political pollster, has been researching this topic for years and just published his latest findings in Forbes. The problem is pervasive, he says. One doesn’t have to travel to places like Appalachia or the South Bronx “to see the faces of hunger in America.”
Zogby’s survey of 11,979 American adults this year found that nearly one in ten acknowledged having gone without food for 24 hours because of a lack of money in the past month – the metric he uses to measure hunger.
A recent Gallup survey found that 17.2 percent of Americans were struggling to afford food, although that was based on a single question of whether there were times in the last 12 months when the respondent didn’t have enough money to buy food for his or her family. That represented Gallup’s lowest food insecurity rate since 2008.
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Many of the people Zogby interviewed are middle class Americans. “They are people who look just like us, may have all the trappings of a middle class lifestyle and are not necessarily standing in line for unemployment benefits or food stamps – because mostly they are not eligible.”
Zogby’s survey, done online, may have actually understated the problem, as many of the poor don’t have access to the Internet. According to a demographic breakdown, western states with the largest numbers of Hispanic residents have the highest concentration of hungry people.
About 13 percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds and 12 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds interviewed experience hunger, as do people at almost every income level. That includes 14 percent of those earning less than $25,000 a year and 11 percent of those in the $100,000 to $150,000 income group.
For some families or individuals signed up for federal nutrition help, charitable food assistance often serves as a complement to federal efforts at alleviating hunger. Yet others are reluctant or too proud to ask for handouts.
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Despite providing critical assistance, “federal nutrition assistance programs do not reach everyone at risk of hunger in the United States,” according to the Feeding America report. For instance, an estimated 27 percent of the so-called food-insecure population in 2012 had household incomes above the standard eligibility thresholds for federal nutrition assistance programs. For those people, charitable handouts may be the only support.
In the case of the SNAP program that helps supplement the diets of 46.5 million people, the government in recent months took steps to preserve the eligibility requirements but cut the benefits. About 83 percent of all eligible families and individuals take advantage of the program, but that means 17 percent do not, because they’re unaware of it or choose not to participate.
For those who do sign up, it can be a struggle getting through the month before their benefits run out, according to experts.
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“There are people who receive benefits who nonetheless are hungry because the benefit levels tend to run out towards the end of the month,” said Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “There are people who qualify for low benefits – for example, senior citizens, people with disabilities – who may get SSI or Social Security. Those programs bring them close to the poverty line but their SNAP benefits are relatively low, and they face a hard time getting access to food.”
For those who are able to qualify for SNAP, the benefits are not excessively generous. Right now, the SNAP benefit is about $1.45 per person per meal.
“That’s why the benefits run out three weeks into the month,” Rosenbaum said, adding, “It’s reduced for income, and the assumption is that people can afford to spend 30 percent of their other available income on food… Food stamps [aren’t] intended to cover your whole month.”
Related: Puzzling Rise in Food Stamp Use as Economy Improves
Many people find themselves in a bind and decide to skip meals to try to make ends meet – or to keep their children from going hungry.
Zogby explained, “Those who experience hunger on a regular basis may not even be poor. They may be victims of a temporary setback, or frankly, a catastrophe they thought would only be short lived. But they face difficult choices at times – literally whether to eat or pay the bills, or at least let the kids eat.”
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