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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday released its findings on food insecurity in our country and the results revealed progress. USDA reported that 11.8 percent (about 15 million) of American households reported that at some point during the year they had trouble affording enough food for their families, down from 12.3 percent in 2016, representing nearly 700,00 households that moved from food insecurity to security last year. Very low food security — USDA’s measure of the most severe deprivation and what is defined as hunger — also fell, by a statistically significant 0.4 percentage points, from 4.9 percent to 4.5 percent. While we shouldn’t read too far into this data, because food insecurity can often be a misleading measurement of what families actually consume, it is worth taking a moment to note the progress we are making in helping families afford sufficient food.
(USDA’s Economic Research Service has developed an excellent array of interactive charts and graphics showing how food security correlates with age, education, employment, and more — it’s worth checking out.)
It is also clear that this progress has almost everything to do with a healthy economy and more working Americans. The rate of food insecurity for families headed by a full-time worker is 9 percent, while families with nobody employed have a food insecurity rate of over 40 percent. Thankfully, the latter category is shrinking: Unemployment is at near-historic lows and labor force participation is beginning to tick upward, meaning that more Americans are going to work, which allows them to return home with food to put on the table for their families.
What’s more, this decrease in food insecurity is clearly not due to the reach of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which has declined in enrollees in recent years after nearly a decade of growth. Those who advocate adding more and more people to SNAP’s rolls often point to the program’s ability to fight hunger, and it does do that to an extent — but increases in work and earnings do much more to reduce hunger than increases in SNAP enrollment.
Of course, 15 million households struggling to afford food is still too many. The number will continue to decline if more Americans join the labor force, and the pattern would receive a serious boost if SNAP would emphasize work more among its recipients. As the Council of Economic Advisers recently pointed out, there are still millions of work-capable adults on SNAP’s rolls who do not work at all. We could make progress on improving food insecurity levels if SNAP (among other programs) would accept that helping recipients find work can and should be part of its job as an antipoverty program.
One final point: Food insecurity is four times more likely for children in homes with single mothers — and twice as likely in homes with single fathers — than for children in homes with a married couple at the helm. Family structure clearly matters in making sure that children do not go hungry, and poverty fighters would be wise to acknowledge that.
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