14 Percent of Americans Are Food Insecure: What that Really Means

September 4, 2014 - 8:43 AM

More than 14 percent of American households are “food insecure,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual “Household Food Security” report.

But does this mean, as media reports have suggested in the past, these households are experiencing “pangs of chronic hunger?”

Actually, no. Food insecurity and hunger are not synonymous. USDA defines food insecurity as a limited access to adequate food because of “a lack of money and other resources.” But as both last year’s report and this year’s noted, most food insecure households reported “few, if any, indicators of reduced food intake.”

Most adults in the United States say they never went hungry in 2013. As the report shows, less than 5 percent of adults reported they were hungry but unable to eat because they couldn’t afford it even a single day last year. Among children, the number is 1.3 percent.

This doesn’t mean some Americans aren’t struggling to put food on the table, and it certainly doesn’t diminish the reality of their hardship. But to best help those in serious need, it’s important to have a clear picture.

Of course, the question remains: What is the best way to help?

Americans are a generous people and don’t want to see their neighbors go hungry. But as they extend a helping hand, they also want to see people exercise personal responsibility. Anti-poverty programs should steer recipients toward self-sufficiency. Programs such as food stamps should point able-bodied adults towards work, rather than acting as a one-way handout. This way, assistance goes to those who truly need it, and able-bodied individuals are encouraged to provide for themselves and their families.

Anti-poverty efforts also must focus on strengthening marriage. The USDA report shows 87.2 percent of married families were “food secure” in 2013, compared to just 65.6 percent of those headed by single mothers. Overall, children in single-parent families are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers in married-parent homes. Yet today, more than 40 percent of children are born to single moms.

Work and marriage are the best protectors against poverty, and policy should recognize this. All too often the discussions surrounding anti-poverty efforts include distorted statistics accompanied with too little discussion of the importance of work and strong families. Helping those in need is a serious matter, and having a clear understanding of the facts is crucial.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.