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Understanding Food Insecurity During the Great Recession

Awarded Scholars

Hilary W. Hoynes, University of California, Davis
Patricia M. Anderson, Dartmouth College
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Northwestern University
Kristen F. Butcher, Wellesley College
Project Date: November, 2011
Award Amount:$146,614

Access to adequate food is critical for health and well-being, and lack of food may have lasting consequences for health and development, especially for children. Since 2000, rates of poverty and food insecurity in the U.S. have been rising, and both spiked dramatically in 2008 with the onset of the Great Recession. In 2009, 23.2 percent of children lived in food insecure households, up from 16.9 percent in 1999, while the fraction of children living in households with very low food security has almost doubled, reaching 1.3 percent. The Great Recession has not only increased poverty and hunger in the U.S., it has changed the relationship between the two. Traditionally, rates of poverty and food insecurity have closely tracked each other, with poverty rates remaining slightly higher. However, during the Great Recession, rates of food insecurity grew beyond the poverty rate.

In order to understand the changes in food insecurity, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Patricia Anderson, Kristen Butcher and Hilary Hoynes will conduct a comprehensive profile of families with food insecurity, paying special attention to what has changed as a result of the Great Recession. The profile will include information on employment, demographics, time use, expenditure, and dietary intake patterns. Schanzenbach and her colleagues will examine how food-secure and food-insecure households differ, and determine whether the rise in food insecurity can be attributed to increased numbers of households with the characteristics that lead to food insecurity, such as having an income near or below the poverty line, or a single head-of-household, or to a change in the relationship between these characteristics and food insecurity.

Schanzenbach, Anderson, Butcher, and Hoynes will examine a number of hypotheses about the rise in food insecurity. One possible explanation is the high unemployment rate. Because the U.S. social safety net has moved away from entitlements and toward work-contingent benefits designed to help the working poor, the unemployed have fewer resources to turn to for support, and may be more likely to experience food insecurity. The recession and housing crisis have also made credit less accessible, both because lenders have tightened their standards and because many former homeowners can no longer borrow against their home; so the unemployed may no longer be able to use credit to purchase food and other necessities. It is also possible that the rise in food insecurity is related to the price of food. During the Great Recession, while core inflation has fallen, food prices have tended to remain high.