More Americans struggle to afford food

September 13, 2013

More Americans are struggling to afford food—nearly as many as did during the recent recession, according to a recent Gallup survey. The 20.0% who reported in August that they have, at times, lacked enough money to buy the food that they or their families needed during the past year, is up from 17.7% in June, and is the highest percentage recorded since October 2011. The percentage who struggle to afford food now is close to the peak of 20.4% measured in November 2008, as the global economic crisis unfolded.

Americans’ ability to consistently afford food has not yet recovered to the prerecession levels seen in January through April 2008, when less than 17% in the United States reported that they had problems affording food in the past year. This is only the third time in 68 successive months of Gallup and Healthways’ tracking, which began in January 2008, that at least 20% of Americans said they struggled to afford food in the past year.

Americans remain as likely to have access to basic necessities in general now as they were in October 2011, when it was at its lowest point. The Basic Access Index, which includes 13 questions about topics including Americans’ ability to afford food, housing, and healthcare, was 81.4 in August, on par with the all-time low of 81.2 recorded in October 2011. The Basic Access Index peaked at 84.1 in September and October 2008 at the start of the economic crisis. It steadily declined until March 2009 and has never recovered to prerecession levels, defined as at least 83.0.

One in five Americans reported in August that they did not have enough money to buy the food that they or their family needed in the past year, more than said so earlier this year and near highs seen since 2008. Stagnant wages are one possible reason why Americans’ ability to afford food and other basic needs has not improved since the recession. Depressed wages are likely negatively affecting the economic recovery by reducing consumer spending, but another serious and costly implication may be that fewer Americans are able to consistently afford food and meet other basic needs.

Increasing wages alone, however, is not enough to significantly increase the percentage of Americans who have the ability to afford food. Federal government programs also play a role in addressing this issue. As food stamp (SNAP) enrollment increases, Republicans in Congress are proposing substantial cuts and reforms to the program, while Democrats are resisting such reductions. Regardless, food stamp benefits are set to be reduced in November after a provision of the 2009 fiscal stimulus program expires. Therefore, it is possible that even more Americans may struggle to afford food in the immediate future.

Press release