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Causes of Food Insecurity Go Well Beyond Low Incomes

September 16, 2014 at 10:37 AM

With about 1 in 5 children (and 1 in 7 Americans overall) living in households where someone has trouble affording adequate food at some point during the year, a Brookings Institution report released yesterday reviews research findings on the causes of food insecurity among children and the effectiveness of policies to address it.  Not surprisingly, the report finds that families with low incomes are more likely to be food insecure.  But it also finds that other factors, such as the health of  caregivers and access to stable housing and child care, can influence children’s food insecurity — findings with important lessons for policymakers.

“[E]ven when income and other risk factors are accounted for, adult caregivers’ mental and physical health play a central role in children’s food security,” explains the report’s authors, the University of Illinois’ Craig Gundersen and the University of Kentucky’s James P. Ziliak.  Caregivers in food-insecure households were more likely to report physical and mental health problems, such as depression and substance abuse, than caregivers in food-secure households.

Other factors affecting food insecurity include child-care arrangements — children attending a child-care center were less likely to be food insecure than other children — lack of stable housing, and income instability, the report found.

In examining how well food assistance programs fight food insecurity, the report states, “in most studies, SNAP [i.e., food stamp] participation leads to substantial reductions in food insecurity.”  While SNAP recipients usually have higher rates of food insecurity than other low-income households, that’s because people often apply for SNAP in response to food insecurity, the report explains.

In a panel discussion after the report’s release, CBPP President Robert Greenstein cited its implications for policies in a number of areas, from health reform’s Medicaid expansion to providing more adequate child care funding.  For example, in the median state that hasn’t adopted the Medicaid expansion, a mother loses Medicaid eligibility when her income rises above just 47 percent of the poverty line; expanding Medicaid would enable these states to expand access to health care, potentially reducing food insecurity in households with children.