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Child Hunger by the Numbers

A Serious Problem We Can Solve

SOURCE: AP/M. Spencer Green

A mother serves lunch to her three children. She is a single mother and full-time student, and food stamps often don't cover the food her family needs each month.

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Read the report: Feeding Opportunity: Ending Child Hunger Furthers the Goal of Cutting U.S. Poverty in Half over the Next Decade

Hunger impairs children’s emotional, intellectual, and physical development, and poorly nourished children end up costing our nation billions a year in health care costs and other public services. The issue only grew worse during the Great Recession. But the problem is solvable if we make the right investments in the upcoming child nutrition bill, reform child nutrition programs, and take steps to eliminate poverty.

This by-the-numbers look at child hunger shows how widespread the problem is, how many different types of families are affected, and what we can do about it.

Child hunger is prevalent and has real costs

16.6 million or 22.5 percent: Number of American children living in homes with some level of food insecurity in 2008. Food insecurity is a term used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to measure families’ level of hunger. Food insecure households are “at times, uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food.”

Nearly 25 percent: Percentage of American children who didn’t have enough food in 2007, but lived in households too wealthy to receive any government nutrition assistance.

50 percent: Percentage of all U.S. children who will receive food stamps at some point before their 18th birthday.

90 percent: Percentage of black children who will receive food stamps sometime before their 18th birthday.

$28 million: How much child hunger costs the U.S. economy each year in health care, lost productivity, education system impacts, and charity system expenses.

Children of different backgrounds are affected

Graph of families by income levelChild hunger affects families in every type of family. For instance, 42 percent of families with children who were food insecure in 2007 earned incomes below the poverty line (up to $17,170 for a family of three), 10 percent were between 100 percent and 130 percent of the poverty line (up to $22,321 for a family of three), and 6 percent had incomes of 130 percent to 185 percent of the federal poverty line (up to $31,764 for a family of three). A startling 21 percent earned incomes above 185 percent of the poverty line (above $31,764 for a family of three).

The reason families so far above the poverty line are going hungry has to do with the fact that the current poverty line is based on an outdated formula calculated solely by food prices. It does not take into account costs for housing, health care, child care, fuel, and transportation, among other things. As a result, many Americans who live somewhat above the official poverty line have so much trouble affording basic expenses that they live in seriously impoverished conditions.

Many of these families are working hard to get by. Sixty-eight percent of food insecure households in 2007 had at least one full-time working adult and 85 percent had at least one working adult. Forty-two percent of food insecure households that year were also two-parent families.

Graph of families by regionThe problem doesn’t discriminate by region, either. Of the households with children having very low food security in 2007, 35 percent lived in the Southeastern United States. But 30 percent of those households were in the Western United States, 18 percent were Midwestern families, and 17 percent of these families facing hunger were in the Northeast.

Families of different incomes and regions are all affected, but minorities and female-headed households clearly see high rates of hunger: 25.7 percent of black households were food insecure in 2008, as were 26.9 percent of Latino households. Additionally, 37.2 percent of single mothers saw food insecurity that year as did 39.9 percent of children in families headed by a single mom.

What can be done

“Feeding Opportunity” proposes several strategies to end child hunger. The report urges additional spending in this year’s reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act—the major federal legislation that determines child food policy and resources—that could be used to make free and healthy breakfasts available to every child in a Title I school, which are the lowest-income schools in the country. The spending could also be used for grants that reward states for innovations in reducing child hunger, expanding access and reducing paperwork in programs that provide meals to children after school and during the summer, and boosting school gardens.

The paper also recommends reducing the paperwork and simplifying the applications for school breakfast and lunch programs, which could save an estimated $1 billion a year that we could pump back into feeding more children and making meals healthier.

But beating child hunger also means reducing poverty, and the Center for American Progress has released a blueprint for cutting poverty in half in 10 years. It includes policy solutions such as creating decent-wage jobs, increasing the minimum wage, expanding refundable tax credits, enhancing work supports such as child care, connecting youth to work, increasing the availability of affordable housing, and helping families build assets.

Taking these measures along with the steps above could help end child hunger in America and decrease what the nation pays each year for this problem.

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