The Scandal of the Working Poor
The ranks of America’s hungry are expanding—including double-income families in some of the richest places in the country. Our exclusive survey of which states are failing.
The ranks of America’s hungry are expanding—including double-income families in some of the richest places in the country. Our exclusive survey of which states are failing. Plus: How to help.
The deepening hunger crisis revealed this week by a U.S. Department of Agriculture report has largely been attributed to the recession. But an exclusive analysis by The Daily Beast finds several states with hunger problems that far outpace their poverty rates, an indication that it isn’t just the fragile economy that’s to blame.
In states with disproportionate hunger problems—Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and Connecticut top the list—bureaucratic red tape, geographic and demographic challenges, and high housing and energy prices are keeping people from getting the food they need, analysts and activists say.
The worst 10 offenders for disproportionate hunger are:
1. Colorado 2. Alaska 3. Oregon 4. Connecticut 5. Utah 6. Nevada 7. Vermont 8. Maine 9. Missouri 10. Oklahoma
“The bottom line is always political will,” says Kathy Underhill, executive director of the Colorado Coalition to End Hunger. “As a state, it’s where you put your resources.”
Read Sasha Abramsky’s report on Double Income No Food families. Plus, click here to see The Daily Beast’s complete ranking of states with disproportionate hunger, and read about the methodology of our study.
Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University who specializes in hunger issues, agrees that political leaders across the country need to step up to improve the situation in anti-hunger and other relief programs. “These programs have been neglected,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not good programs, but they need to be updated.”
She points to the federal Food Stamp program as a prime culprit. Food stamps work differently in each state—with varying eligibility standards, application procedures, and requirements for continued participation. “The feds will say that people don’t know they’re eligible for food stamps,” Chilton says. “But people know they’re eligible…The process can be extremely complicated and time consuming.”
In Colorado, for example, “There’s a 26-page application, one of the longest in the country,” says Underhill. While the program is supervised by the state, it is administered at the county level, with each of the Colorado’s 64 counties using different procedures. In addition, the state requires recipients to return every three months to maintain their eligibility, stricter than the federal minimum of every six months, and benefits are available only to those who earn up to 130 percent of the poverty level—or less than $28,000 for a family of four.
But Pauline Burton, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, points to the USDA food insecurity report, which included Colorado among 13 states where the percentage of households without enough food declined from 2006-2008, as evidence that the state was doing better in addressing hunger.
The USDA report found that 49 million Americans lived in households without consistent access to adequate food last year, a stunning 13 million more than the year before. In Colorado, while the overall number improved, the percent of households facing acute hunger increased by more than a percentage point, to 5 percent.
Burton acknowledges that just 54 percent of eligible people in the state participated in the Food Stamps program in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available. Colorado has stepped up its outreach efforts, she says, launching an online tool last month that allows people to check whether they are eligible for food assistance and other benefits before going to a county office. An online application is expected to be available in the spring. The county offices facilitate cooperation with local area food banks, Burton says, and each site has a staff member who speaks Spanish or offers access to an interpreter.
Oregon, where hunger has been a largely unexplained problem for more than a decade, has already made substantial improvements to its Food Stamps process, so that an application that used to take nine days can now usually be completed in one office visit. The state also makes benefits eligible to those who earn up to 185 percent of the poverty level.
Gene Evans, communications officer at Oregon’s Department of Human Services, called Food Stamps “a booming business,” with an unprecedented one in six Oregonians, or 654,000 people, receiving the benefit. “We expect that number to increase,” he says.
Evans notes that the federal government recently awarded the state a bonus because it is reaching such a high portion of the Food Stamps-eligible population—85 percent in 2006. With high Food Stamps participation rates and a strong state network of food banks, analysts said other factors help explain the state’s persistent hunger problem.
“On average, it’s true that place where poverty is high, hunger is high,” says Mark Edwards, a sociology professor at Oregon State University who has studied the phenomenon. “But it’s also true that other characteristics of states really matter.”
He points to the area’s high housing costs, which mean that, while people’s income may place them above the poverty line, such a high portion of their wages go to rent that there is little left for food. Residents in Northeastern states such as Maine and Connecticut may face a similar dilemma, forced to pay for expensive home heating fuel over food.
Reaching hungry people in the far corners of Oregon also remains a challenge. “I think people have this vision of rural America as full of bounty and food,” says Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. “But many of the poorest counties in the country are rural, and there are many rural counties without food banks.”
In Alaska, some of the same forces are at play. The poverty rate is an especially poor guide to the food insecurity that residents face in this expensive state, where wages may be high but so are milk prices.
As Merri Mike Adams, managing director of the Food Bank of Alaska, puts it, “Alaska only has roads through half the state, so getting food around is difficult.” The food bank manages six state government food programs, but, Adams says, Alaska is the only state without a U.S. Department of Agriculture warehouse, making it difficult to stockpile food in case of emergencies.
She cites several other factors as contributors to the state’s hunger problem, including high shipping costs. In addition, “Some people don’t like to ask for help,” she said. “Indigenous cultures especially have an attitude that says, 'I should be able to feed my family.'”
Ellie Fitzjarrald, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance, says participation in the Food Stamps program had increased over recent years as residents struggle with exorbitant energy costs. “We’re hearing anecdotally about households who may have been able to get by before, but are applying for benefits, because they just can’t manage anymore.”
Her office is now engaged in a preparedness campaign, working hard in the western part of the state, where winters are especially harsh, to remind seasonal workers that they might qualify for Food Stamps. Meanwhile, the food bank will fly some 3 million pounds of food around the state and distribute another 3 million in Anchorage.
That may not be enough. “You do not solve hunger simply with more food,” says Chilton, the Drexel professor. “The only way you’re going to end hunger is to address poverty head-on, admit that it exists and that our programs are not working.”
Get Involved: Read our Q&A with City Harvest’s Erin Hoover on how to alleviate hunger close to home.
Holly Yeager is a longtime Washington journalist. A former U.S. politics correspondent for the Financial Times, she writes frequently about public policy and national politics.