Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hungry Children in America

AOne child in five in the United States lives in a "food insecure" household. Craig Gundersen and James P. Ziliak lay out the evidence in "Childhood Food Insecurity in the U.S.: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options,"  a Fall 2014 Research Report written for The Future of Children. They begin (footnotes omitted):

In 2012, nearly 16 million U.S. children, or over one in five, lived in households that were food-insecure, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food.” Even when we control for the effects of other factors correlated with poverty, these children are more likely than others to face a host of health problems, including but not limited to anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive problems, higher levels of aggression and anxiety, poorer general health, poorer oral health, and a higher risk of being hospitalized, having asthma, having some birth defects, or experiencing behavioral problems.
The underlying data here comes from survey answers to the Current Population Survey, a nationally representative survey done each month by the U.S. Census Bureau. The survey includes a module about food and hunger in households.

Examples of questions include: “Did you or the other adults in your household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?”; “Did you ever cut the size of any of the children’s meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?”; and, the most severe item for households with children, “Did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food?” ....  Children are experiencing food insecurity if at least two of the eight child-centered questions are answered in the affirmative, and very low food security if five or more such questions are answered positively.
Unsurprisingly, families that are poor are more likely to experience food insecurity. But perhaps more surprisingly, the connection from poverty to food insecurity is by no means ironclad. After all, the U.S. spends over $100 billion on food-related programs for the poor, including food stamps, school lunches and breakfasts and others.  As the authors write:
 Clearly, the risk for child food insecurity drops quickly with income. But even at incomes two and three times the poverty level, food insecurity is quite high. Moreover, almost 60 percent of children in households close to the poverty line are in foodsecure
households. This suggests that income is only part of the story and that other factors also contribute to children’s food security.
As the authors dig into the data on children living in food-insecure households, the theme that keeps emerging is the quality of parenting the children receive. Here are snippets from the report, taken from a number of different studies.

[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. ... [M]others in food-secure poor households are in better physical and mental health and are less likely to report intimate-partner violence and substance use compared with mothers in food-insecure poor households. When the sample is restricted to those with incomes twice the poverty line and lower, food-insecure families are more likely to be headed by poorly educated single mothers and more likely to report maternal depression and substance abuse than are food-secure families with similar incomes. ... [W]hen mothers are moderately to severely depressed, the risk of child and household food insecurity rises by 50 to 80 percent, ... [D]rug use in the last 30 days—and heroin use in particular—is strongly associated with food insecurity among children. ...
[A]fter controlling for economic and household characteristics, children living with a single parent or living with an unmarried parent in a more complex family (for example, one that includes a cohabiting partner or another adult such as a grandparent) have a greater risk of food insecurity than do children living in families where the parents are married. ... [C]ompared with children cared for exclusively by their parents, low income preschoolers attending a child-care center had lower odds of both food insecurity in general and very low food security ... [C]hildren of foreign-born mothers were three times as likely to experience very low food security as werechildren of U.S.-born mothers, even after controlling for other risk factors.  Children in households with an incarcerated parent constitute another vulnerable group. ... 
The takeaway lesson, at least for me, is that food stamps and school lunches do help to reduce food insecurity, as do programs that provide income support to those with low incomes. But when the adults in a household are having trouble managing their own lives, children end up suffering. The answers here are straightforward to name, if not always easy to do, like finding ways to get food to children directly (perhaps by expanding school food programs to the summers and weekends) and to help parents in low-income households learn how to stretch their limited resources.  As I have argued before on this website, for many children, the parenting gap they experience may be limiting their development even from a very young age.