Q & A: The Causes Behind Hunger in America
More than 13 million families in 2004 were unable at times to buy the food they needed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Finances are so strained for 5 million of those families that one or more members goes hungry as a result.
In An Atlas of Poverty in America, Penn State University economic geographer Amy Glasmeier takes a historical and contemporary look at the problems faced by the country’s poor. Here, she discusses the phenomenon of hunger in America.
Q: The USDA has classified 38 million Americans as “food insecure.” What is the difference between poverty and food insecurity?
A: There are 37.5 million people in America who live below the poverty line, which is based on an amount of money thought to be required to provide a very minimum lifestyle. In 2005, $19,350 is the poverty threshold for a family of four, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
At the same time, the government also classifies 38 million people as “food insecure,” which means at some point in the previous year they had difficulty finding the money to buy food.
We can assume that many of those who aren’t able to always buy the food they need are also living in poverty, but there is scant empirical research linking poverty and food insecurity. The statistics for each currently are collected separately.
Q: Why is there hunger in America?
A: A big part of food insecurity relates to the uncertainties of daily life. People go hungry because of unexpected events, such as paying for an emergency visit to the hospital, a car repair, or the loss of a job. So you can be just above the poverty line, and any one of those circumstances can push you into poverty.
When a family is living that close to the edge, the bottom line is that cuts will be made in the consumption of food. Food is purchased with cash. If you don’t have a credit card, then you have to pay cash for food. The majority of people don’t have a monthly charge account at the local grocery store.
There also are problems of access and distribution. Good, healthy, fresh food is expensive, especially if you work at a minimum wage job. Remember, the national minimum wage is still $5.15 per hour; that’s $10,300 a year for a fulltime job.
There is a definite geography of poverty. The highest rates of poverty are found in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the U.S.-Mexico border and Indian reservations. I have been in poor communities where you are 30 or 40 miles from a store that manages its vegetables so they don’t rot in bins. A year ago , I was in a Tunica, Miss., Piggly Wiggly food market examining the role of gambling in the economic growth of the region, and what I found there was a lot of normal products, except for the vegetables and the meat counter. The vegetables
were wilted lettuce and dried apples, or even tomatoes with black spots. At the meat counter, I found mostly chicken wings and ham hocks, packaged in every conceivable way to produce a ham hock, and they’re 90 percent fat. That’s the sum of what’s available for people to buy. Low-income communities support retail operations that sell low-cost goods. When it comes to food, low-cost items do tend to be high in fat and low in nutritional content.
Q: How common is it for families to have to make a trade off between food and expenses such as health care?
A: Families are often forced to make the tradeoff between food and other expenses. Health care is a particular problem. In poor, rural communities families often have no choice but to use the emergency room for routine health care. This is very expensive. Car repairs are another significant and unexpected expense. If the family car needs repair and it is the end of the month, when cash reserves are low, a family will have no choice but to reduce food intake to get the car back on the road in order to go to work. It’s all about how close to the line you are.
When the original poverty measure was created, it was based primarily on the minimum food budget needed for a family of three. The threshold has been increased to reflect changes in the cost of living, but the same formula is used to calculate today’s poverty line. What was missing when it was created, and is still missing, is an account of all the other costs of living that income is spent on, including clothing, furniture, transportation and health care.
Q: How successful has the food stamp program been at reducing food insecurity?
A: According to the USDA, in 2004 the average monthly food stamp benefit was about $86 per person and about $200 per household. This average of $200 is just over one-third of what the USDA recommends a family of four should expect to spend on food using its Thrifty Food Plan.