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Poverty Demographics: The Effects of Hunger on Different Age and Racial Groups

young child holding produce

While hunger and food insecurity are broad societal issues that affect Americans across all demographics, it would be irresponsible to talk about food access without acknowledging that, too often, our country’s most vulnerable communities are the ones that have the hardest time getting enough to eat.

Poverty and economic instability are deeply enmeshed with food insecurity. Hunger has been shown to disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities at exponential rates. Communities with mobility difficulties such as older adults, disabled people, and people living with chronic diseases are also more likely to experience food insecurity.

By exploring these food insecurity and poverty demographics in detail, we can better understand how to answer the challenge of hunger for our neighbors that need our help the most.

Food Insecurity Demographics for People Experiencing Poverty

In the USDA’s report Household Food Security in the United States in 2021, researchers utilized a large-scale representative survey to identify a number of demographic trends relating to food insecurity. Their analysis indicated a strong statistical association between food insecurity and income.

The report found that 32.1% of households with annual incomes below the official poverty line experienced food insecurity, compared to just 5% of households whose incomes were at or above 185% of the poverty line. Households with incomes above the poverty line but less than 185% still experienced food insecurity at a rate of 26.5%, suggesting that an income threshold exists where food insecurity becomes far less common.

Food Insecurity and Poverty Rates by Age

A person holding a box of fresh produce that they received form a mobile food pantry.

In a 2020 study by the University of California, Davis, researchers utilized data about low-income adults from the National Health Institute of Statistics to show rates of food insecurity for different age groups.

  • Young Adults (18-34): 33.7%
  • Early Mid-Life (35-49): 36%
  • Late Mid-Life (50-64): 37.5%
  • Older Adults (65-84): 20.2%

 
According to these researchers’ findings, middle-aged adults also showed an increased risk of food insecurity relative to young adults, while older adults showcased a decreased risk.

In The State of Senior Hunger in 2021, Feeding America noted that 7.1% of older adults (aged 60 years or older) were food insecure, while 9.4% of adults aged 50-59 were food insecure. Both the UC Davis report and the Feeding America report suggest that food insecurity rates may be higher for middle-aged adults.  

Food insecurity was shown by the USDA to affect 12.5% of all households with children under 18 years old, which represents a statistically significant difference from the national average (10.2%). At 12.9%, households with children under the age of 6 were even more likely to experience difficulties in having enough food to go around. According to USDA findings, parents often attempt to shield children from the worst effects of food insecurity. In roughly half of that 12.5% of households, only adults experienced food insecurity while children ate normally. However, in 6.2% of households with children, child and adult alike both experienced interrupted eating.

Demographic factors can cause these percentages to increase significantly as well. For instance, single parent households were far more likely to be food insecure, with 24.3% of female-headed single parent households and 16.2% of male-headed single parent households experiencing the condition, respectively. Pay inequity between the genders likely contributes to 8.1% more female-headed single-parent households experiencing food insecurity than male-headed ones. In 2022, women earned an average of 18 cents less per dollar than men, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers. These results are similar to where the pay gap stood in 2002, when women earned 80% as much as men (or 20 cents less per dollar).

Racial Demographics of Food Insecurity and Poverty

Food insecurity and hunger reinforce and exacerbate pre-existing inequalities experienced by historically marginalized communities of color. These disparities are deeply tied to structural racism and discrimination. Households with BIPOC members are more likely — exponentially so in some cases — to be food insecure than their white counterparts.

A 2021 report from Feeding America indicated the following food insecurity disparities by race:

  • 8.1% of White individuals lived in food-insecure households
  • 15.8% of Latino individuals lived in food-insecure households
  • 19.3% of Black individuals lived in food-insecure households
  • 23.5% of Native American individuals lived in food-insecure households

 
Additionally, these historically marginalized communities were significantly more likely to experience what the USDA describes as “very low food security” — a condition indicating multiple instances of interrupted eating per month. Compared to the national average (3.8%), Latino households were close to twice as likely to experience very low food insecurity (5.5%), and Black households were more than twice as likely (7.9%).

While less research has been done to explore the effect of food insecurity on Native American communities, a food security-related study was conducted in 2019 by University of California, Berkeley and four Native American tribes in California and Oregon: the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and Klamath Tribes. A staggering 92% of the Native American households in the study region experienced food insecurity. These issues were further compounded by the fact that a majority of these households reported that their access to culturally relevant native foods was consistently restricted.

Effects of Food Insecurity and Poverty on Vulnerable Demographics

In children and older adults, the physically and mentally debilitating effects of prolonged food insecurity can have especially deleterious effects on health outcomes.

According to Feeding America, infants and toddlers that experience food insecurity are more likely to face conditions like anemia and asthma, and more likely to be hospitalized because of those conditions. These children are also more likely to experience developmental issues with language and motor skills, as well behavioral and mental health challenges.

In Feeding America’s The State of Senior Hunger in 2020 report, researchers indicate that older adults experiencing food insecurity consumed less key nutrients than their food secure counterparts. These older adults were also much more likely to experience the following negative health outcomes:

  • 64% more likely to experience heart attacks
  • 71% more likely to experience congestive heart failure
  • 74% more likely to experience diabetes
  • 78% more likely to experience asthma
  • 262% more likely to experience depression

 
These negative health outcomes associated with food insecurity are also often exacerbated within communities of color. According to CDC data, 14.5% of people diagnosed with diabetes were Native American, 12.1 % were Black, and 11.8% were Latino, compared to 7.8% of white-identifying individuals.

While these food insecurity demographic statistics are sobering, you can better help answer the challenge of hunger in your community by supporting your local food bank, such as Food Bank of the Rockies, with a one-time gift or becoming a monthly donor, or advocating for expanded food access programs such as SNAP.

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