Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Figure 1 shows the percentage of households responding to the USDA food surveys (in survey years during the period 1977–91) who reported that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat, by income level. Low income is defined as household income at or below 130% of the official poverty threshold.15 Two important characteristics of food insufficiency in the United States over the past two decades are apparent in the figure. First, the percentage of households reporting that sometimes or often they did not have enough to eat remained at a relatively low level, between 2.0% and 3.9%, during the period.16 These low prevalence rates, however, do translate into a substantial number of households (1.8 to 3.1 million) and individuals (4.7 to 8.4 million) who had problems getting enough food. Moreover, the number of individuals in households reporting that they do not have enough to eat increased by approximately 700,000 between the survey periods 1977–78 and 1991.17
Figure 1 also illustrates that reported food insufficiency is closely related to poverty: The percentage of households with incomes not exceeding 130% of the federal poverty level who sometimes or often did not have enough to eat fluctuated between 7.7% and 16.0% during the 1977–91 period, rates about four times those reported for the general population. Data from the NHANES III for 1988–91 (not shown in Figure 1) confirm the strong relationship between poverty and food insufficiency. In that data set, among individuals in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, 15.9% reported at least some food insufficiency, a rate 10 times higher than the 1.6% of individuals who reported insufficiency in nonpoor families.18
Although intuitively obvious, the demonstrated fact that food insufficiency is closely related to poverty merits discussion because of its particular implications for children. Since poverty rates for children in the United States are higher than for the population as a whole (22.7% for children under 18 years versus 15.1% for the population as a whole),19 it stands to reason that children would suffer food insufficiency at higher rates than adults. Food insufficiency rates by age derived from the NHANES III, shown in Figure 2, support this conjecture.
Children and youths (ages two months to nineteen years) experienced food insufficiency at rates between 5.3% and 6.1%, while 4.1% of adults 20–49 years of age experienced food insufficiency, and adults 50 years of age and older experienced food insufficiency at the lowest rate, 1.5%.
Using the age-specific rates from the NHANES III and the child population for 1990, it is estimated that approximately 3.1 million children and youths less than 20 years of age experienced food insufficiency in the early 1990s.20 Of these, 1.1 million were less than six years of age, 0.9 million were 6 to 11 years of age, and 1.1 million were 12 to 19 years of age. These estimates for children less than 12 years of age are 50% less than the widely cited estimates of hunger among children in the United States produced by the CCHIP.21 Projections from the CCHIP suggested that approximately four million children under age 12 from low-income families (defined in the CCHIP as families with income less than 185% of the poverty level) were hungry at some point in 1993. In addition, CCHIP reports that approximately 9.6 million low-income children under age 12 are "at risk of hunger." However, as described above, CCHIP uses criteria and a survey design different from those of the NHANES III to measure food insufficiency, so it is not surprising that the two surveys' estimates of the number of children who have problems obtaining enough food do not agree exactly. Lack of agreement on the precise number of children experiencing food insufficiency, however, should not distract attention from the fact that between two million and four million children under age 12 have had problems obtaining enough to eat in the United States in recent years.