The Dynamics of Food Insufficiency

The United States has an affordable and abundant food supply. Still, a small percentage of the American population experiences food insufficiency (sometimes or often not having enough to eat). Efforts to target assistance programs to meet the needs of this group can be improved through a better understanding of how people move into and out of food insufficiency, who is most vulnerable, and how long people are food insufficient.

Researchers from ERS and The George Washington University used newly available longitudinal data from the Survey of Program Dynamics to study the dynamics of food insufficiency in the 1990s. They found that under 3 percent of Americans in 1997 lived in households that were food insufficient. Moreover, a large number of people had escaped food insufficiency; four-fifths of those in households that were food insufficient in 1994-95 were food sufficient 2 years later. However, people who were in food-insufficient households in 1994-95 were 10 times more likely than others to be in food-insufficient households in 1997. Although food insufficiency was a relatively transient hardship in most cases, people are indeed more likely to experience food insufficiency in the future if they experienced it in the past.

Food-insufficient households (percent)
Characteristics 1994-95 1997 Both years Either year
All people 4.3 2.7 0.9 6.1
White 3.7 2.2 0.7 5.1
Black 8.2 6.5 2.1 12.6
Hispanic 12.2 7.7 2.9 17.0
Noncitizen 11.8 6.6 2.8 15.5
Education level
Less than high school diploma 6.5 4.6 1.7 9.4
High school diploma 3.5 1.9 0.4 4.9
College degree 0.9 0.5 0.2 1.2
Household type
Married-couple with children 3.3 1.6 0.4 4.4
Female-headed with children 13.6 12.7 4.3 22.0
ABAWD 3.1 1.5 0.3 4.2
Note: ABAWD is able-bodied adults without dependents (whether or not food stamp recipient).
Source: Calculated using data from the 1993 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) and 1998 Survey of Program Dynamics (SPD). SIPP is a national longitudinal survey conducted by the Census Bureau and designed to capture changes in income, labor supply, household composition, and program participation. SPD is a follow-on to the 1992 and 1993 panels of SIPP.

Food insufficiency among U.S. households varies along social and demographic lines. Female-headed households are more likely to experience food insufficiency and are more likely to remain food insufficient than are other households. Disability status and changes in household composition, such as a change in the number of household members, are both associated with entry into food insufficiency. Completing high school increases the likelihood of exiting food insufficiency. ERS research found that food insufficiency depends on more than just poverty status, indicating that poverty and food insufficiency capture fundamentally different dimensions of economic hardship.

This evidence supports the effectiveness of the design of the Food Stamp Program and other food assistance programs as a safety net for low-income people, particularly those who experience unexpected income difficulties. However, for persistently food-insufficient households, more targeted assistance programs may be necessary.