It’s been more than five years since the Great Recession officially ended. The stock market is rising and the unemployment rate is falling, yet poverty remains stubbornly high and millions of Americans still can’t afford the food they need to feed their families. According to two new reports by the USDA and Feeding America, many families, including a growing number of suburban families, must choose between food and other basic needs like paying rent, transportation, or medical care.
Since 2008, according to the USDA report, the share of households that in the prior month cut back on the size of their portions, skipped meals, ran out of food before payday, or couldn’t afford to feed their families balanced meals has been stuck at approximately 14 percent. In 2003, before the recession began, approximately 11 percent of households were “food insecure,” as the USDA defines it. For most of these families, food insecurity was not a fleeting experience. Most were struggling for at least seven months in the year.
Although scrimping on food is a problem none of us wants, it is particularly hard on kids. And the numbers, unfortunately, are much higher for children. Nearly one in five (19.5 percent) US households with children was food insecure in 2013—affecting nearly 16 million children. Of these children, approximately four in ten (37 percent) lived in the suburbs in 2010, according to a study by Alisha Coleman-Jensen for the USDA. In contrast, one-third lived in central cities, and 16 percent were in rural areas.
Many of the food-insecure families are not also benefiting from SNAP or other supports, for a variety of reasons. Only approximately one-half (47 percent) of the food-insecure families received SNAP (food stamps) benefits in the prior month. Only one-third of the children in these families were enrolled in free or reduced-price school lunches.
So why aren’t more families and children receiving benefits when they clearly could use them?
“Some people don’t know [they’re eligible], for others it’s difficult to navigate the process, for others it’s the stigma,” Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center, said in an interview with the Huffington Post.
Another reason, said Scott Allard, professor at the University of Washington, in a paper presented at a workshop on child hunger last year, is the location of the offices. Not all neighborhoods have a public assistance office or nonprofit food bank. Research shows that proximity to a provider increases awareness, which in turn increases the odds people will sign up for the supports. Unfortunately, as Allard reported, evidence suggests that food programs are not well matched to neighborhoods with the highest need.
This disconnect is particularly true in the suburbs, where poverty is a new phenomenon and the capacity to help families is not yet built up. In a study for the Brookings Institution, Allard and his colleague, Benjamin Roth, found that suburban communities have fewer and less accessible food assistance providers than urban communities do. That could be one reason, as Elizabeth and Alan wrote in “Confronting Suburban Poverty,” why 46 percent of poor urban households but 40 percent of poor suburban households received SNAP.
In the suburbs, the newness of food insecurity and poverty more generally also takes many by surprise: “There is a new group of people who don’t know where to go for help, they are newly poor and don’t know what to do,” a suburban Chicago respondent told Allard and Roth.
Many of these newly poor in the suburbs are working. A story in the Baltimore Sun on use of food banks in suburban Montgomery County, MD, underscored that point, writing: “The great recession hit so many industries so hard that many previously middle class families can no longer afford to feed their families and make ends meet. It is telling, and indicative of hunger across America, that a food bank in Montgomery County reports people checking their watches because they have to get back to work. They represent the growing masses of working poor who never thought they would need food assistance.”
In Montgomery County and elsewhere food banks have reported that people are increasingly relying on their services not solely as emergency support, but as monthly maintenance to supplement insufficient paychecks.
So what can be done to resolve the plight? One model that holds promise for connecting families to supports is the Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NON) in the Washington, DC, area. Working directly with the Department of Human Services, NON created a cadre of community residents to help people in need access services in a more streamlined, integrated way. Rather than being based in a government office, the community connectors are housed at the local (and more trusted) nonprofit organizations. They also make a concerted effort to connect neighbors to neighbors, which, asthey wrote, “involves them in networks that can help them become less vulnerable.”
This is one positive step, but hunger and food insecurity are real issues for far too many people, and increasingly suburban families as well. More must be done to ensure that families don’t run out of food by Tuesday when the paycheck doesn’t arrive until Friday.
Photo credit: US Dept. of Agriculture