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Root Causes of Hunger

Many factors lead to hunger in America. A simplistic explanation focused only on household income or the availability of federal nutrition programs misses major contributing factors.

For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) has been shown to reduce hunger, but it does not succeed in eliminating it altogether for every participant.40 Furthermore, hunger occurs in 25.5% of households with incomes below 130% of the poverty line that did apply for and receive SNAP benefits for 12 months, but occurs in only 10% of households at the same income level that did not receive SNAP benefits at all during that period. Clearly, hunger has causes other than income alone, and therefore, food assistance alone will not eliminate hunger. 

U.S. households experience hunger because of limited income due to a variety of factors, including low or underemployment, family instability, low educational attainment, exposure to violence, a history of racial or ethnic discrimination, personal choices, or a combination of these. These factors can play a large role in hunger and cannot be addressed solely through the public nutrition assistance programs or through charitable giving. Understanding the root causes of hunger is essential in order to eliminate hunger.

"[People put] energy into collecting data and building infrastructure to distribute food boxes and run soup kitchens, creating ways to get kids to want to come eat some of the meals in the parks and close by—that's a lot of work. It's a lot of planning. It' a lot of organizing and it's great intelligence. Yet, doing so does not assist anyone out of poverty, and/or increase their accessibility to be part of mainstream community. It keeps us in line waiting for the box."
– Dee Clarke, Founder, Survivor Speak (Maine)

Labor Market Forces and Job Availability 

The number of households experiencing hunger is sensitive to economic forces. 

The 2007–2009 economic downturn, the Great Recession, led to significant unemployment, which in turn led to an increase in hunger. The number of unemployed workers more than doubled, from 7.1 million in 2007 to 14.3 million in 2009. Hunger levels also jumped sharply during that period. Six years after the official end of the recession, hunger rates shamefully remain at historically high levels, with particularly high rates among single parent households with young children, households of persons with disabilities, and the households of racial and ethnic minorities. 

Our nation’s economy has struggled with significant structural shifts that have occurred over the last 60 years. Manufacturing jobs have declined, partly due to deindustrialization and automation, while the service sector is growing and producing more jobs. Globalization has contributed to more widespread offshoring and outsourcing, particularly of manufacturing jobs, but also of some types of service jobs, such as those in call centers. These trends have contributed to fewer well-paying job opportunities for those without a postsecondary education.

Globalization: changes promoting the open flow of goods and services among countries.

Offshoring: moving jobs from the United States to other countries where labor is cheaper. 

Workers with a high school education or below are more likely to hold jobs that pay low wages, and are part-time, unstable, or seasonal. Oftentimes these types of jobs offer few opportunities for career advancement, and may not offer important supports such as sick leave or family leave. Such jobs are also associated with major income instability or sharp income fluctuations. These are the kinds of conditions that can cause a household to experience hunger.

"We hear every day loud and clear from all areas of the state that people can’t support their families. They can’t get food because they can’t find decent jobs. The forest industry, the fishing industry, canning, textile, manufacturing are all in distress. Giant Mills: Empty. A major naval air station: Closed. Mill towns: have struggling economies. We hear about the problem of people living isolated from job centers in a state with virtually no public transportation, or the lack of affordable housing (if people do move to the few job centers)."
– Donna Yellen, Chief Program Officer, Preble Street (Maine)

Family Structure

Marriage has a significant impact on whether or not a household will experience hunger: Households with an unmarried head of household are more likely to face hunger than other households in America. 

The hunger rate for households headed by a single mother (12.8%, or 1.3 million households) is four times the rate for households headed by a married couple (3.2%, or 804,000 households). For households headed by a single father, the rate (7.0%, or 228,000 households) is more than twice the rate of households headed by people who are married.

Today, 40% of children in the United States are born to unmarried parents. These pregnancies are mostly unplanned: 69% of pregnancies among unmarried couples are unintended, compared to 35% of pregnancies among married couples. Children growing up in single parent households are more likely to miss out on fundamental opportunities for their social and emotional development, and are less likely than children in two parent families to do well in school or graduate high school.50 Having children too early in life, struggling to create a safe and stable household environment, and having multiple children outside of marriage compounds this problem.* 

*It is important to note here that children can be raised in single-parent households for reasons other than parents choosing not to marry, such as divorce or death of a parent.

Households with one wage-earner typically have lower incomes. In addition, women earned about 81% of the median earnings of their male counterparts in 2012.52 Women with children under 18 also earned less than both women and men without children and men with children.53 Understanding that many factors affect the labor market and play a role in these data, these wage disparities compound the problem facing single earner households, especially those headed by women. The poverty rate among children in households headed by a married couple is 6.2% (3.7 million households), compared to 15.7% of households headed by a single father (970,000 households), and 30.6% of households headed by single mother (4.8 million households).

"Basically, what it comes down to, being food insecure, you have to go through a lot of resources. It is really aggravating because basically I’m doing what I’m supposed to do as a parent, right? But when there’s no husband or boyfriend or any other kind of support, everything falls on me."
– Denise Speed, Marbury Plaza Resident, Anacostia (Washington, DC)


U.S. high school graduation rates have improved, with the national graduation rate exceeding 80% in 2012 for the first time in U.S. history; however, economic, racial, cultural, and ethnic differences remain. 

The graduation rate for low-income students in 2014 was below 80% in 41 states. Some of the most important predictors of high school graduation are reading level at third grade, family poverty, family structure, and concentrated poverty at the neighborhood level.

The relationship between hunger and high school graduation operates in both directions: graduation rates are lower among those experiencing hunger, and hunger, in turn, has been linked to special education and grade repetition, both important predictors of high school dropout rates. Hunger is also related to lower educational attainment: in 46% of households with hunger among children, the adults did not have an education beyond high school. Hunger among children is present in 2.9% of households in which the adults did not complete high school, 1.3% of those with adults having only a high school education or GED, and 0.4% of households having an adult with a college degree or more.

Exposure to Violence

Research over the last 10 years has found that victims of violence, neglect, or abuse as a child or violence as an adult, are more likely to report hunger.

For example, hunger rates among women who, as children, experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or household dysfunction (domestic violence, parent in jail) are 12 times as high as rates among women who did not.60 Hunger is also more frequently reported by women who recently experienced domestic violence. In some studies, women who report experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to report household food insecurity.

Historical Context

There are significant racial, ethnic, and gender disparities between households that report hunger and those that do not. 

For example, the hunger rate among African American households is 10.4% (1.6 million households); for Hispanic households, it is 6.9% (1.1 million households); whereas for white households, that rate is 4.5% (3.8 million households). Among American Indians, data are not available for hunger rates, but the broader food insecurity rate is nearly twice that of the general U.S. population. These racial and ethnic disparities have been consistent since the USDA began measuring food insecurity in 1995. These disparities may be attributable to a persistent combination of political, social, and economic factors—including residual racial and ethnic discrimination—that affect access to jobs, opportunities for home ownership, high-quality education, and affordable healthy food.

We must acknowledge this historical context if we are to improve the nutrition, health, well-being, and security of all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. 

"These disparities are wreaking havoc on our communities and our country and we need a sort of holistic response to the economic disparity and the food insecurity that you all are focusing on. Dr. King said in a letter from the Birmingham jail, We're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” This problem isn't a problem for people of color. This is everybody’s problem."
– George Jones, CEO, Bread for the City (Washington, DC)

Personal Responsibility

Although we feel that our nation would make progress in reducing hunger if we made gains in each of the factors above, we also acknowledge one other key ingredient—the actions of individuals. 

Personal agency, personal responsibility, and individuals making good choices play an important role in the extent to which Americans are hungry, and any discussion of how to reduce hunger that omits these factors is incomplete. 

Individuals make many life choices that can affect financial circumstances and hunger: choices about staying in or dropping out of high school, choices about getting a job or not, and choices about having or delaying children.

While it is true that enhancing the health and cognitive and emotional wellbeing of Americans by reducing hunger would produce greater opportunities for individuals, we must always recognize the importance of individual decision-making. As Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, contends, “changes in personal behavior…would have an enormous impact on poverty and opportunity.