Archive (2008)

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Spring 2008

On January 9, 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau released the Small Area Income and and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) for 2005. Focusing on North Carolina, SAIPE's findings are reason for concern.

Poverty rates for all ages in North Carolina and the U.S. in 2005:

  • The poverty rate for the U.S. overall was 13.3%.
  • The number of individuals in North Carolina who were poor in 2005 was about 1,226,979 or approximately 14.9% of the population.
  • The poverty rate for N.C. counties ranged from 8.3% for Dare to 32% for Robeson. Twenty-five of N.C.'s 100 counties had poverty rates of 20% or higher. Seventy-two counties had poverty rates higher than the national average.

Poverty rates for children in North Carolina and the U.S. in 2005:

  • The national rate for all children was 18.5%; for children under five it was 21.3%.
  • Of children in N.C., 20.8% were poor. In other words, across the state, one out of five children were poor. The statewide poverty rate for children under five was even higher at 23.3%.
  • Camden County had the lowest childhood poverty rate at 11.3%; Robeson County had the highest at 47%--almost half of all children in the county.
  • Overall, 69 N.C. counties had childhood poverty rates higher than 20%; 16 had rates of 30% or more.

Median income in North Carolina and the U.S. in 2005:

  • In N.C., the median income was $40,781, with median incomes by county ranging from $26,379 (Bertie) to $57,741 (Wake).
  • Median income in the U.S. was $46,242. New Jersey had the highest average income at $61,694, followed closely by Maryland with $61,546. Mississippi had the lowest median income at $33,090.

Comparisons with previous years:

Because the data sources for the 2005 estimates were different from previous years, the Census Bureau cautions against directly comparing the two groups. However, comparisons have been reported widely in the press. Here are a few generalities:

  • According to SAIPE, the poverty rate in N.C. in 2004 was 13.8% (2005 was 14.9%); in 2000 it was 11.7%.
  • Median income in N.C. in 2004 was $40,863 ($40,781 in 2005); in 2000 it was $38,889. Income is not adjusted for inflation.

Background information:

SAIPE data can be searched by state, county or school district and is based on several administrative and survey sources, including the American Community Survey, federal income tax returns and numbers of food stamp recipients.

For more information, visit the Census Bureau website at

For the purposes of the federal government, poverty is defined as three times the estimated cost of feeding a family. This calculation is based on the assumption that food comprises one-third of a family's expenses--widely considered to be an outmoded and inaccurate determination of poverty.

According to the 2007 federal guidelines, the poverty level for a family of four is $20,650 a year.

Summer 2008

Many news outlets have reported on the recent spike in demand for food stamps and food assistance.

Food Stamps

According to the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of people receiving food stamps has been increasing steadily since summer 2007.

  • In March 2008 (the most recent month available as of the end of June), 27,878,875 Americans participated in the Food Stamp Program. This figure represents a 6% increase from the March 2007 totals.
  • The states with largest increase in food stamp users between March 2007 and March 2008 are Florida (19%) and Nevada (18.6%), followed by Arizona (15.1%), Idaho (14.3%), Maryland (13.8%) and Rhode Island (12.2%). Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma were the only states that experienced a drop in enrollment (from -2.3% in Arkansas to -.4 in Nebraska) during this same time period.
  • Approximately one out of 11 Americans receives food stamps. The average monthly benefit was $100.95 per person in March 2008.
  • The rate of increase in North Carolina was slightly higher than the nation as a whole. In March 2007, 870,376 North Carolinians participated in the Food Stamp Program. That number jumped to 928, 874 in March 2008--a rise of 6.7%.

For more data on food stamp use, visit the Food and Nutrition Service website at

For articles on food stamps, see:

Food Assistance

According to a survey conducted by America's Second Harvest this spring, 99% of participating food banks said that they had experienced an increase in the number of clients they served in the past year. The survey estimated that nationally the number of clients served went up 15-20%. Over 80% of surveyed food banks indicated that they were unable to adequately meet demand without having to reduce the amount of food distributed or their operations.

For articles about the pressure on food banks and pantries, see:

Rising Costs

The rising cost of food and fuel are frequently the two major reasons cited for the growing reliance on food stamps and/or food pantries.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks the Consumer Price Index, reports that nationally the cost of "food at home" went up an average of 5.8% between May 2007 and May 2008. However, the price of some essential grocery items has skyrocketed well beyond that rate.

  • Cereal and bakery items are up 10.5%
  • Bread is up 15.9%
  • Eggs are up 18.2%
  • Milk is up 10.2%
  • Rice is up 19.9%

Moreover the cost of household energy has risen 11.9% (with states that depend on oil and kerosene for heating especially hard-hit). And no one needs to be told that the cost of regular unleaded gas has jumped--20.5% on average.

For more information on the Consumer Price Index, visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fall 2008

Food Insecurity

This summer, we focused on the spike in food prices and demand for food assistance. This installment follows up by taking a look at the rate of food insecurity in the U.S.

Every November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases an annual report on food insecurity based on Census Bureau data. The USDA uses the term "food insecurity" in lieu of "hunger." Households with "low food security" experience difficulty in providing adequate food due to a lack of resources. "Very low food security" households suffer from disruptions in their eating patterns and reduction in food consumption (i.e., they go hungry).

While the numbers in this year's report are alarming, they actually pre-date the economic downturn and in all likelihood understate the current scope the problem. In addition, homeless families and individuals are not counted, biasing the statistics downward.

Among the report's worrisome findings:

  • Over 13 million households containing over 36 million individuals were food insecure in 2007.
  • About 1/3 of food insecure households had very low food security.
  • Since 1999, the percentage of households experiencing very low food security has been trending upward (3% of households in 1999 to 4.1% in 2007).

Of the households characterized by very low food security:

  • 98% reported having worried that their food would run out before they got money to buy more.
  • 97% reported that the food they bought just did not last and they did not have money to get more.
  • 94% reported that they could not afford to eat balanced meals.
  • 96% reported that an adult had cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food; 87 percent reported that this had occurred in 3 or more months.

Regionally, the South had both the highest number (over 5 million) and highest percentage (11.8%) of households who were food insecure last year. The South also led the nation in the percentage of food insecure households containing children.

Prevalence of food insecurity ranged widely from state to state. North Dakota had the lowest percentage of food insecure households (6.5%); Mississippi had the most (17.4%). North Carolina came in at about the national average with 12.6% of households reporting food insecurity.

Food Insecurity and Food Assistance

The USDA report found that almost 4 million households obtained food from food pantries in 2007. Of these, 58% reported going more than once or twice a year. Among food insecure households that did not use a food pantry, 28% reported that there was no such resource in their community, and an additional 17% said they did not know if there was one.

Interestingly, about 32% of households that reported using food pantries in this survey were classified as food secure. However, just over half of these households reported at least some concerns or difficulties in obtaining enough food.

27.5% of households that received food stamps in the month prior to the survey also obtained food from a food pantry at some time during the year.

The Food Research and Action Center website provides loads of useful data and reports, including its annual State of the States publication, which details poverty rates and nutrition program use nationally and on a state-by-state basis.

The USDA recently announced that September 2008's food stamp participation rate surpassed 31.5 million, the highest participation rate on record. Notwithstanding the large numbers of people using food stamps (now officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), research suggests that one in three eligible people are not receiving food stamps now.

Larger Picture

Of course, food insecurity doesn't happen in a vacuum. Over a million jobs have been lost this year; 240,000 in October 2008 alone. The Labor Department has calculated that the alternative unemployment rate measure--which includes discouraged job seekers and involuntary part-time workers--was at 11.8% in October. 22.3% of the unemployed have not been able to find work despite looking for 27 weeks or more.

Finally, 55% of Americans have no interest-bearing savings accounts. Among taxpayers who make less than $30,000, 2/3 have no interest income. As a result, many Americans have no cushion to break their economic fall should they be laid off or suffer some other setback.

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