Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases statistics on food security, a measure of whether people have enough food for a healthy life. Households who experience food insecurity have so little money and resources that they can't afford to eat every meal. Data released this month show that while food insecurity has declined for five consecutive years, tens of millions of Americans are still going hungry at times.
Last year, about 12.3 percent of American households were food insecure, down from a peak of 14.9 percent in 2011.
Anti-hunger advocates, though, warn that the Trump administration and Congress are poised to undo that progress.
"We don't want to take our foot off the gas," says Ginger Zielinskie, president and CEO of Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit that works with social services agencies in seven states. "In a country with as much wealth and food as we have, there’s no reason that kids should be struggling to eat.”
The Trump administration is calling for $190 billion cuts over 10 years for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. The U.S. House Budget Committee has similarly proposed at least $150 billion in SNAP cuts over 10 years, starting with fiscal year 2018. The proposals would reduce SNAP benefits spending between 21 percent and 27 percent a year.
The Republican-controlled House has outlined similar cuts before, but they had little chance of being enacted under President Obama, a Democrat. Over the summer, Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, a Republican, reportedly resisted the large cuts. It's unclear, however, whether centrist Republicans will back a plan that makes dramatic cuts to SNAP, which could complicate budget negotiations this fall.
The White House and Republicans in Congress argue that SNAP costs too much (about $71 billion last year) and doesn't do enough to encourage recipients to work. They note that the unemployment rate and SNAP participation rose during the recession, and unemployment is back at pre-recession levels -- but the number of people on food stamps is still 66 percent higher than before the downturn.
The national poverty rate, like food insecurity, has been slower to rebound than unemployment, suggesting that people at the bottom of the income distribution haven't fully recovered from the recession. Two years ago, a bipartisan commission appointed by Congress found that structural changes in the economy, which resulted in the loss of manufacturing and service jobs, had exacerbated hunger.
“Food insecurity stays high primarily because of job market problems,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. “People can’t find jobs, and many millions of people get paid crappy wages.”
Before the recession, food stamp recipients were required to have a job or participate in government-approved training. But during and after the recession, the Obama administration granted waivers for that rule to states, or some parts of states, with high unemployment and weak labor markets. As the economy improved in the past few years, though, some states have re-established work requirements in SNAP for able-bodied adults without dependent children. Last week, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced that he would reinstate work requirements, noting that his state's unemployment rate had hit record lows for three months in a row.
For the roughly 15 percent of SNAP recipients who are subject to the work requirement, finding stable, high-paying jobs may still be difficult. Many lack a high school degree, forcing them to rely on part-time or seasonal work. For people who still struggle to find work, Rus Sykes, a program director at the American Public Human Services Association, says states need to establish stronger relationships with local employers that can and are willing to hire SNAP recipients.
“We know that a job, even at entry levels, is the best path to better economic and social conditions,” he wrote in an email.
Surprisingly, many food-insecure households do not benefit from federal food subsidies, according to the USDA report released this month. Only 59 percent participated in SNAP or the next two largest nutrition programs. Nationally, about 85 percent of eligible people participate in SNAP, though the rate ranges from 57 percent in Wyoming to near 100 percent in Maine, Nevada and Oregon, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
Between 2014 and 2016, the average food insecurity rate ranged from 8.7 percent in Hawaii to 18.7 percent in Mississippi. In some states -- including Alabama, Connecticut and West Virginia -- food insecurity was far worse during that period than before the recession. The map below shows the food insecurity rate for each state.
Household Food Insecurity (%) Figures represent 2014-2016 averages for low or very low food security. Source: USDA, Economic Research Service