One of Five Americans Struggling To Afford Food, Survey Finds

By: - August 24, 2012 12:00 am

Despite record food stamp enrollment around the country and an economy considered to be on a modest upswing, the Great Recession is continuing to take its toll on many Americans who struggle to put food on the table, a Gallup survey released this week found.

Nearly one in five Americans found it difficult to pay for food in the past year, according to the survey. Recent gains in job creation and falling unemployment have offered little relief: The number of Americans who said they struggled to afford food so far this year is almost identical the number in 2011.

Of those surveyed, 18.2 percent said they had trouble. In 2011, the number was 18.6 percent. The most recent survey included 177,000 adults (with 1,000 interviews conducted each day) between January and June.

This year’s drought and the potential for skyrocketing food prices could worsen the problem in some regions of the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in July that the full extent of the drought on food prices is not yet known, but that it expects prices to continue to rise. Food costs are expected to increase as much as 3.5 percent, in part, because of higher feed prices. A new forecast from the USDA is due out today.

That uncertainty aside, though, the regional impact of the drought, rising food prices and other economic difficulties is apparent in the Gallup survey. Results varied widely among states, with some states having double the difficulty rate than others.

States in the northern plains have the lowest number of residents who said they had trouble affording food. North Dakota, for example, had the lowest percentage with 9.6 percent, followed by South Dakota at 11.8 percent. Vermont, Wisconsin and Minnesota rounded out the bottom five, with Nebraska, Montana and Kansas close behind. Those states also tend to have lower unemployment rates than others, and their residents typically have less trouble affording food, according to Gallup.

But for a number of states in the south, the confluence of recession, rising prices and a history of food-access issues has exacerbated the problem. One out of every four adults in Mississippi, for instance, reported difficulty affording food in the past year, the highest rate of any state in the country. Alabama was close behind at 23 percent, followed by Delaware, Georgia and Nevada in the top five. Find the full 50-state results here.

The survey pust a fine point on the broader debate over safety net spending occurring in Washington and in many states around the country. Extended unemployment benefits have ended, and Congress is debating proposals to cut back spending on the state-federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. As of May this year, the most recent month for which data was available, more than 46 million were receiving SNAP benefits, an increase from 28 million just four years ago.

As Stateline reported earlier this month, dual proposals in Congress would cut between billion and billion from the food stamp program, potentially costing thousands their benefits. Those cuts have been tied up by partisan bickering over the broader farm bill, but have worried advocates nonetheless.

“One of our concerns will be that the drought will cause food prices to go up,” Kansas Representative Barbara Ballard, who co-chairs the National Conference of State Legislature’s Human Services & Welfare Committee, said in a previous interview. “I believe they know the cuts are too high.”

But while those food stamp cuts have been put off for now, cuts to other safety net programs have advocates concerned about the poor or unemployed. Earlier this month, Idaho became the last state to end its extended unemployment benefits, since it no longer met the requirement to offer them thanks to its improving economy.

That means no state in the country offers the full 99 weeks of unemployment benefits that were offered during the worst of the recession, even though long-term unemployment remains high in many areas. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that has cost more than 500,000 people their benefits as the assistance has tapered off around the country.

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