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The New Face of Hunger, Part II: Who Eats and Who Doesn’t?

By Mike Andrew 

“Food Prices Surge as Drought Exacts a High Toll on Crops,” reads a headline in the March 8 Wall Street Journal.

“Federal forecasters estimate retail food prices will rise as much as 3.5% this year, the biggest annual increase in three years, as drought in parts of the U.S. and other producing regions drives up prices for many agricultural goods,” the story continues.

The Commodity Research Bureau (CRB) estimates a 19% jump in spot food prices between the previous low in December 2013 and March of this year.

The spike in food prices corresponds with an all-time high in demand for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “food stamps”) benefits.

Not that SNAP alone can solve the problem of food insecurity, especially in a time of rising prices. According to the Center for Budget Priorities, the average amount of SNAP benefits for a family of four is only $668, while the USDA puts the cost of feeding a family of four as high as $1,271.

We saw in the March issue of the Advocate, in Part I of this story, that having a high school education and a full-time job is no longer a guarantee against hunger as it once was. In fact, the majority of SNAP recipients are now people of working age with a high school, or better, education.

This, in part, is a result of the “Great Recession,” but even more it reflects the decades-long stagnation of real wages which have failed to keep up with rising food prices.

Sadly, the spike in food prices also corresponds with a new Farm Bill that cuts SNAP benefits for some 850,000 households, 230,000 of them here in Washington State according to the Washington Children’s Alliance.

The harsh impact of these long-term economic trends and shorter-term austerity polices do not impact all sections of the American people equally however. People of color and women tend to be at far greater risk of food insecurity than white men, and consequently depend on SNAP benefits to a much greater extent.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last year found that 18% of U.S. adults have received SNAP benefits at some time in their lives. Of those, 31% were African American, 22% were Hispanic, 18% were other people of color, and 15% were white.

Women of any race are twice as likely to use food stamps as men, the Pew study found.

According to a new study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), “Women earn less than men in almost all of the 112 occupations for which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes weekly full-time earnings data for both women and men,” so it’s no wonder that women and households headed by women have a harder time securing their food needs.

Women of color in particular are far more likely to depend on SNAP for their basic nutrition. Some 39% of African American women have gotten help from the program, compared with 21% of African American men. The gender-race participation gap is also wide among Hispanics, with 31% of Hispanic women having gotten assistance, but only 14% of Hispanic men.

Among whites, the gender gap is smaller. Still, white women are about twice as likely as white men to receive food stamp assistance, 19% as opposed to 11%.

While the Pew study did not specifically address the special problems of immigrant families, they will be hard-hit by provisions in the new Farm Bill that exclude immigrants who are unable to prove their legal status.

According to a new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, LGBT Americans also depend heavily on SNAP benefits for their food needs.

About 21% of the LGBT respondents in their survey said they received benefits from SNAP. Twenty-nine percent said that at least once in their lives they lacked the money to buy food, compared to only 15% of straight respondents.

Thirteen percent of same-sex couples and 26% of same-sex couples with children under 18 said they received SNAP benefits last year. A whopping 43% of LGBT single parents said they relied on SNAP for their food requirements.

As in Pew’s survey, race made a significant difference in food security for the LGBT population. Thirty-seven percent of LGBT African American adults, 55% of LGBT Native Americans, and 78% of LGBT Native Hawaiians rely on SNAP assistance for their food needs.

Again, these figures relate to economic pressures generated by the recession, but even more so to systemic problems — institutionalized discrimination against some communities and the stagnation of real wages for all sections of the working class.

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