Politics of Poverty

How many working families are dependent on food banks in the US?

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Derek, a single parent pictured here with his three children, works in security for the transit system in St. Louis. Despite working full-time, Derek has faced considerable challenges in providing food for his family and affording their other living expenses, often making tradeoffs to ensure his children have enough to eat. By visiting a local pantry for support during difficult financial times, Derek is able to supplement his limited income. Photo courtesy of Feeding America.

Feeding America and Oxfam America release a new study.

Mary Babic is the Communications Officer of Oxfam America’s United States Regional Office.

Americans are going back to work. US employment numbers are in and we should be glad. A job means a wage, and that means people can cover the essentials: rent, heat, clothes, medicine – and most importantly food, right?

Not always. If the jobs being created are mostly low-wage jobs—a third of all U.S. workers are paid less than $12 per hour—then that’s a big problem. Having a job may NOT mean being able to pay all the bills or consistently put food on the table.

Today Oxfam America, in partnership with Feeding America, releases a new study that digs into the data about the working Americans who turn to their nationwide network of food banks and pantries.

What we found is shocking. Over half of the Feeding America’s clients live in working households, approximately 25 million individuals. What’s more, these working families are not turning to food banks only in emergencies. Most report depending on the local food pantry as part of their regular survival strategy. Most face wrenching choices between paying for food…or heating their home, buying medicine for a family member, or making the mortgage.

In places like Oklahoma, low-wage jobs are creating ever greater need for private food assistance. Staff at regional food banks in Oklahoma report that unemployment is not the problem in their state, but rather underemployment –low wages and too few hours. Oklahoma is in the top twelve states for a low unemployment rate, at 4.7%. At the same time, they’re in the top ten of states for concentration of low-wage workers, at 31%. They’re in the middle of the US for food insecurity rate, at 15.5% and Oklahoma’s top five biggest occupations range from $9.29 an hour to $16.85 an hour.

So many families on minimum wage jobs can’t cut it,” says Whitney Danker, public policy and advocacy director at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

In fact, food banks are making the transition to “Food Resource Centers” and creating partnerships with other programs and agencies to provide a variety of services to help people find a way out of needing food banks. This means helping people get jobs, but also helping them get good jobs. They provide interview clothing, legal services, job training, and childcare.

In other words, How do we help people not come to see us?’” says Clay Diers, of the Moore Food Resource Center, which was set up in the wake of the devastating tornadoes in 2013, but is becoming permanent.

Oklahoma illustrates a reality for the rest of the country. The “economic recovery” hasn’t touched most Americans. Ninety-five percent of the income gains between 2009 and 2012 have gone to the top 1 percent of earners, the number of middle-income jobs has actually shrunk, and most new jobs created have paid low wages. Most of these positions have no paid leave, no employer-provided health insurance, no pension plans, and often irregular hours in tenuous jobs. Millions work in retail, in restaurants, providing elder or child care, and in many other occupations that pay $8, $9, or $10 an hour—a far cry from a living wage. And it will only get worse. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that nearly half of new jobs created between 2012 and 2022 will be in low-wage occupations.

Despite working, many Feeding America client households report minimal incomes and challenges in keeping food on the table and affording life’s essentials. The report lays out some of the numbers:

  • Fifty-four percent of all households seeking food assistance from the Feeding America network, which include approximately 25 million individuals, report having at least one member that has worked for pay in the past 12 months. Households with children are even more likely to have at least one employed member in the past year (71 percent).
  • Nearly three-fifths (58 percent) of working client households report that they plan to seek charitable food assistance on a regular basis as part of their monthly budget.
  • Eighty-six percent of client households with employment experience food insecurity.
  • More than two in five (43 percent) working client households—roughly 3.6 million households—have at least one full-time worker, but still utilize charitable food programs to make ends meet. More than half (57 percent) of working client households report part-time employment (30 hours or less per week).
  • The majority of client households with employment subsist on minimal incomes, with 89 percent reporting an annual household income of $30,000 or less. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of working client households live at or below the federal poverty line ($19,790 for a family of three).

Households with employment utilize multiple strategies to secure enough food.

  • Half (50 percent) of working client households participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), in addition to turning to charitable food assistance.
  • The vast majority (94 percent) of working client households have children participating in the National School Lunch Program.
  • Working client households report making tough decisions between paying for food and other living expenses, such as housing and medical care. For example, three-quarters of employed client households report making the choice between paying for food and utilities (76 percent), as well as food and transportation (73 percent), in the past year. In the same timeframe, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of working client households had to choose between paying for food and medical care.

Although charitable feeding programs and government both play a vital role in supporting struggling Americans, they cannot be the long-term answer to hunger in the United States, particularly among those who work day in and day out for a meager living. We need to address the wages that these people earn.

Oxfam believes that a good start is to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2007, when it was last raised. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more than 25 million workers, including nine million parents and more than 15 million children.

In a wealthy country and an increasingly healthy economy, it only makes sense to reward hard work and to give working people a chance at survival and dignity.

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