Vulnerable Groups Most Likely to Not Have Enough Food Amid Coronavirus Crisis

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Updated on Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Nearly 11% of Americans reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the past seven days, according to Census Bureau estimates from mid-September.

Food insecurity is a national issue, but it varies significantly among demographics, with Black Americans, 25- to 39-year-olds, households with incomes of less than $25,000 and those without high school diplomas facing the biggest obstacles to putting food on the table. These statistics reflect the broader trend of rising income equality in the U.S.

To get a close look at this phenomenon, MagnifyMoney researchers analyzed regional data to find which states have the highest percentage of adults going hungry.

Key findings

  • In Mississippi, 17.3% of residents report not having enough food at least sometimes, the highest rate in the country.
  • The rest of the top 10 is dominated by Southern states. Louisiana ranks second, the District of Columbia ranks third, Kentucky ranks fourth and Arkansas ranks fifth. The top seven places where Americans are most likely to suffer from food insecurity are in the South.
  • Western states tend to have the lowest likelihood of residents reporting food insecurity. Though Vermont has the lowest share at 4.3%, five Western states (Utah, Montana, Hawaii, Washington and Idaho) were among the bottom 10.
  • Black Americans are more than twice as likely to say they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat as white Americans.
  • Nearly a quarter of Americans without a high school degree report food insecurity. That is more than seven times the level of food insecurity reported by those with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Food insecurity and general economic insecurity go hand in hand. People with lower incomes are the most likely to report food insecurity issues. Just under 40% of people who said they used money borrowed from friends and family to make ends meet over the past seven days reported not having enough to eat.
  • Nearly 51% of people who say they have no confidence in making their next rent or mortgage payment say they sometimes or often don’t have enough food to eat.

Food insecurity rate by age, race, education and household income

Looking at each state’s data tells a story of hunger from coast to coast. However, food insecurity rates look starkly different when you break them down by age, race, education and household income. Below, you can see the percentage of people in each demographic who said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat.

Age

  • 18 to 24: 12.7% sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat
  • 25 to 39: 13.8%
  • 40 to 54: 12.8%
  • 55 to 64: 9.4%
  • 65 and above: 3.8%

Those ages 25 to 39 are struggling the most, with 13.8% saying they don’t always have enough to eat. Previous MagnifyMoney research found that 63% of this age group who have tapped into retirement savings amid the coronavirus pandemic used the funds to pay for groceries.

Next were those ages 40 to 54, 12.8% of whom are facing food insecurity. Those ages 18 to 24 were right behind at 12.7%. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds have been hit particularly hard by unemployment during the pandemic, which could be making it difficult for them to pay for food.

Race

  • Latino: 17.6% sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat
  • White: 7.3%
  • Black: 18.7%
  • Asian: 5.7%
  • 2 or more races: 16.0%

Nearly 19% of Black Americans reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat over that seven-day period — more than triple the rate of Asian Americans and more than double the rate of white Americans who lacked food.

Substantial job losses among people of color during the coronavirus crisis may explain why higher rates of Black and Latino Americans haven’t been able to stock their pantries easily. Black and Latino Americans had August 2020 unemployment rates totaling 13.0% and 10.5%, respectively.

Education

  • Less than high school: 24.8% sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat
  • High school or GED: 13.9%
  • Some college: 10.8%
  • Bachelor’s degree: 3.4%

Just about 1 in 4 who haven’t graduated high school said they didn’t have enough to eat, compared with 3.4% who’ve received a bachelor’s degree and reported the same. Just under 14% of those who finished high school (or earned a GED) were experiencing hunger at least sometimes, if not often, while the same was true for about 1 in 10 who had some college education.

This amplifies how education affects income. According to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data, those who’ve earned a bachelor’s degree take home $24,388 more yearly on average than those who haven’t earned a degree beyond high school, potentially giving them more budgetary flexibilities for expenses.

Household income

  • Less than $25,000: 28.3% sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat
  • $25,000 to $34,999: 17.0%
  • $35,000 to $49,999: 12.8%
  • $50,000 to $74,999: 9.3%
  • $75,000 to $99,999: 4.9%
  • $100,000 to $149,999: 2.1%
  • $150,000 to $199,999: 1.0%
  • $200,000 and above: 0.6%

It should come as little surprise that wealthier Americans can more easily put food on the table than low-income families. Among those earning less than $25,000 a year, 28.3% were food insecure, compared with 9.3% of people making $50,000 to $74,999 and 0.6% of those earning at least $200,000 and above.

While food insecurity levels varied quite a bit among people of different household incomes, the amount of money they spend on food didn’t fluctuate as much. People in households with incomes less than $75,000 spent between $188.76 and $202.91 on food prepared and eaten at home in the previous seven days. For food outside the home in that same period, those earning less than $75,000 spent between $74.84 and $78.91, or about $50 less than what was spent by households earning $200,000 and up.

Food insecurity rate when going into debt to make ends meet

  • Used credit cards or loans to meet spending needs: 14.9% sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat
  • Borrowed from friends or family to meet spending needs: 39.3%

Access to financing also helps paint a picture of who’s facing the biggest difficulties getting enough to eat. Nearly 4 in 10 who have turned to friends or family for money recently are food insecure.

While government programs are available for those in need, they don’t always provide enough money to cover food expenses. Just about 32% of people who’ve used benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the seven-day period said they lack enough food sometimes or often. Among people relying on unemployment insurance to cover expenses, 17.7% haven’t had enough to eat.

Lastly, 14.9% who’ve had to use money from savings or selling assets to meet their spending needs sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat.

Food insecurity rate and confidence around paying rent/mortgage

  • No confidence 50.6% sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat
  • Slight confidence 28.6%
  • Moderate confidence 13.4%
  • High confidence 2.9%
  • Payment is/will be deferred 12.7%

Some families are finding that they need to choose between keeping a roof over their head and eating amid the pandemic — if they can afford either. More than half of those who are certain they can’t pay their rent or mortgage don’t have enough to eat.

The food insecurity rate drops to almost 29% among people who have a slight confidence in covering housing. But even a small number (7.9%) who are caught up on rent or mortgage payments still have a hard time putting enough food on the table.

5 options for consumers when they don’t have enough food

Go to a local food pantry

State government websites, community groups and religious organizations often provide information on food pantries, where consumers can get free groceries. Some food pantries also provide other items, such as notebooks and pencils, that can help families reserve more of their budget for other essentials, including rent and utilities.

Get a hot meal at a soup kitchen

Many soup kitchens offer nutritionally-balanced hot meals for those in need. Some even provide delivery service, which can come in handy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Apply for SNAP

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides participants with an electronic benefit card they can use to pay for food. The benefits may be used at participating businesses, including grocery stores and farmers’ markets, as well as for online grocery orders at certain retailers. A household’s gross monthly income usually needs to be at no more than 130% of the poverty line to be eligible for SNAP. Contact a local SNAP office to apply.

Apply for WIC

WIC, short for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, helps new or expectant moms, as well as their children up to age 5, get nutritious food, either with an electronic benefit transfer card or via checks or vouchers. Eligible consumers must meet certain income guidelines, residency requirements and be at “nutritional risk,” as determined by a health professional. Consumers can apply for WIC through state agencies.

Get kids’ meals at school

Children from low-income households can get free or reduced-price meals at schools and child care centers through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. As part of its COVID-19 pandemic response, the U.S. has extended its summer meal program through as late as the end of 2020 and made it more flexible, allowing parents and guardians to pick up meals for kids from nearly 80,000 sites across the U.S.

Methodology

Researchers analyzed data from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey conducted Sept. 2 to 14, 2020, to track the number of people who reported either sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the past seven days.

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