Food insecurity: alternative measure of economic distress skyrockets

The US Department of Agriculture highlights how the United States in the last decade, despite increased aggregate wealth, slid back significantly in terms of food insecurity as measure of poverty. With everyone now focused on the unemployment situation, it bears noting that even before the downturn in the economy there had been a large surge in food insecurity nationwide.

The Guardian says:

Food insecurity – defined by the USDA as when "food intake … was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food" – afflicted 14.6% of Americans in 2008. ie, some 50 million people were too poor to guarantee being able to put food on the table.

The table below, also from the Guardian, shows where food insecurity is highest. While much of the distress is concentrated in the South, there are plenty of states in the Southwest and West as well. Maine has the highest food insecurity in the Northeast.


My interpretation of the data goes to income inequality. I see this as evidence that the last decade of growth in the U.S. has not been beneficial for poorer Americans. However, I would go further in saying that the downturn in the U.S. and rising unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure in the middle class has made plain that the middle class has also been left behind. While distress amongst poorer Americans is plain from these numbers, the diminished position in the middle class was masked by a surge in debt. This was made plain only as a result of a drop in asset prices.

At present, U.S. policy makers are trying to make this problem go away by reflating an asset bubble, but continued high unemployment is the elephant in the room which higher asset prices can not make disappear.

As for the poor, a related Guardian article gets to the heart of things:

The report said 6.7 million people were defined as having "very low food security" because they regularly lacked sufficient to eat. Among them, 96% reported that the food they bought did not last until they had money to buy more. Nearly all said they could not afford to eat balanced meals. Although few reported that this was a permanent situation throughout the year, 88% said it had occurred in three or more months.

Nearly half reported losing weight because they did not have enough money to buy food.

The number of children living in households where there were shortages of food at times rose by nearly one-third to 17 million. The report says that most parents who did not get enough to eat ensured their offspring received sufficient food but that more than 1 million children still suffered outright hunger.

The worst affected states are in the south with Mississippi having the largest proportion of its population enduring shortages of food followed by Texas and Arkansas. More than half of those affected are minorities, principally black people and Hispanics.

Millions more Americans do not go hungry only because they are so poor they receive government food stamps or rely on handouts from food banks such as Feeding America. In some states, such as West Virginia, one in six of the population is on food stamps.

This is certainly the stuff of depressions more than V-shaped recoveries. The first Guardian article has links to the data for downloading.


Hungry America: food insecurity, state by state – Guardian

Record numbers go hungry in the US – Guardian

  1. Anonymous says

    I know you cross posted at nc, with a lot of comments there (as well as on clusterstock who also posted re: this research). The comments to these articles seem to have really highlighted the worst of human sentiment and is a dour commentary on social mood right now. I think it crystallizes how things would go should the economy worsen.

    1. Edward Harrison says

      I have to agree with you. I was surprised how Calvinist some of the responses were. Many people associate poverty with sloth and, given enough examples one can point to, that is not going to change. The poor are no more lazy than the rich are greedy. These are caricatures that don’t help anyone understand our social problems.

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