Food (In)Security and Assets in Times of Hardship

Blog Post
Sept. 7, 2011

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual report about food security in the U.S. this morning. Food security is defined as the ability to access enough food at all times for an active, healthy life. In 2010, 17.2 million U.S. households were designated food insecure, meaning that last year they had difficulty providing enough food for all family members due to constrained resources. Unsurprisingly, but disappointingly, these numbers were hardly changed from 2009 when 14.7% of U.S. households could be classified as food insecure. Over 1.8 million households (that’s households, not individuals) reported that an adult in the home did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food at least once during the year. Despite continued high levels of food insecurity (i.e. over six million more households were food insecure in 2010 than in 2000), utilization of major federal nutrition assistance programs like SNAP (formerly the food stamp program), the school lunch program, and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) remained spotty: 41% of food insecure households did NOT participate in any of these three programs (the largest of USDA’s nutrition programs) – probably in many instances because they were deemed too high income by restrictive income and asset guidelines for program eligibility. For example, many states cap SNAP eligibility at 130% of the poverty line. However, according to USDA, 7.4% of households living above 185% of the poverty line experienced food insecurity in 2010 and were ineligible for many programs.

While the majority of U.S. households are able to meet their dietary needs according to the USDA, families with children, those headed by a single parent, Black and Hispanic families, and low-income families (below 185% of the federal poverty line) experienced higher rates of food insecurity than the average.

2010 Food Insecurity Rates

All U.S. Households: 14.5%


Households above 185% of the poverty line: 7.4%

Households below 185% of the poverty line: 33.8%

(Note: 100% of the poverty line for a family of four is about $22,350)


White, non-Hispanic households: 10.8%

Black, non-Hispanic households: 25.1%

Hispanic households: 26.2%

That Black and Hispanic households are experiencing rates of food insecurity more than double that of white households highlights the need for policies and programs that address historical barriers to services, a continued lack of access, and profoundly different experiences interacting with sources of assistance.

The release of these data creates an opportunity to reflect on the role assets can play on the experience of food insecurity and hunger in the U.S. The USDA report notes that food insecurity and associated disruptions to normal eating are typically recurrent rather than chronic situations for U.S. households. Average households reporting food insecurity during 2010 experienced the condition seven months out of the year.  This may partly explain why so many people in the U.S. are confused about how their fellow Americans are experiencing hunger in a land of supposed plenty. Economic instability translates into episodes of deprivation and hunger that might be obscured by times of relative stability, giving the impression that a family is fine the rest of the year (couple that with the stigma and shame of talking about hunger and you have a recipe for being able to ignore a giant problem). The cyclical nature of food insecurity could be offset by having a personal safety net – assets – to fall back on.  

The USDA report notes that “households with limited resources employ a variety of methods to help meet their food needs.” Despite limited financial resources, families find other resources to help them during times of hardship: federal nutrition assistance programs, other public benefits programs, family or friends, or emergency food providers such as food banks. The role assets can play in the face of food insecurity or other instability cannot be under-emphasized. If a family has access to liquid assets, this can represent the difference between parents skipping meals in order to feed their children and having enough food so that ALL members of the household are adequately fed. While the ultimate goal of asset building programs tends to be long-term (e.g. education or home ownership), simply having assets can provide a unique buffer from hardship that can help weather the impact of food insecurity.

Ironically, despite the fact that SNAP is already targeting families with a high level of need for assistance, some states continue to implement administrative gymnastics for families to complete in order to participate. Asset limits in SNAP cap the savings families can have and still qualify for the program, effectively creating a disincentive for participants or applicants to save anything at all. Federal law exempts certain types of assets from SNAP – like retirement accounts and education savings accounts – but old fashioned, regular savings accounts can disqualify otherwise eligible families in some states. The Food Research and Action Center has a handy map showing the state of asset limits in the U.S. as of last year and a press release about the latest USDA report. Asset limits are a misguided attempt to keep supposedly overqualified applicants from abusing the program, but instead succeed in confusing people about eligibility and providing a disincentive to save. This works against the goal of self-sufficiency, one that SNAP and other assistance programs tout as a key benefit of the program. Instead of discouraging hungry and food insecure families from applying for a program that can improve their quality of life and ability to participate in work and school, we should instead continue to think creatively about ways to incorporate asset building into assistance programs.