Some Americans Still Cannot Afford Food

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As extraordinary as it may seem, one in four people in Mississippi could not afford to buy food at least once in the past year, according to Gallup. Perhaps it makes sense that the numbers are high in poor southern and border states — Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia — where people are more often undereducated and out of work.

Most Americans would assume that access to food could not be an issue in the United States, which is still considered the richest society in the world. But that assumption is wrong. And for the time being,  little can be done to solve the trouble.

The states at the other end of the scale based on Gallup data — where food purchasing is not a problem — include low unemployment states. Among these are North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. These states have what is often referred to as “homogeneous” populations. In other words, their residents are mostly white.

The Gallup poll raises several facts that are uncomfortable for many Americans. The first is that the country cannot feed its poorest citizens, despite the abundance of food and food production in the United States. This could be framed as a political problem. Many members of Congress and state officials believe that it is not the job of government to provide food or other goods and services to the poor or undereducated. That reasoning seems perverse. It is not likely that these poorer Americans cannot buy food occasionally because they refuse to work. That takes the argument that some Americans do not want to work a bit far, since almost everyone wants to eat.

Another issue that the Gallup poll begs is that, in many cases, there is government assistance for people who need help feeding themselves. When this in not a political issue, one has to wonder how food has not made it to some poor Americans. Can bureaucracy really be that bad? Unfortunately, based on the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of other government programs, the answer is probably yes.

The last significant difference between the “have” and “have not” states on the Gallup list is the one that has to do with homogeneity of population. About 90% of the residents of North Dakota are white. The same holds true for many of the other states where food is not a problem. In Mississippi, only 59% of the residents are white. It would be nice to assume that race has nothing to do with the issue. White Americans may simply be fortunate to live in states where poverty is not much of an issue.

Gallup’s conclusion about the data is that:

In 2012, the worst drought since the 1950s has affected nearly 80% of agricultural land in the United States, which may drive up the cost of food in the months ahead. While Americans are no more likely to struggle to afford food thus far in 2012 than in the past, more residents may face problems as the drought-related crop damage results in a shortage of inputs in the food supply and begins to affect retail prices.

That assessment is probably naive. It implies that there is not enough affordable food to go around. The hunger problem is more complex than that.

Methodology: Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of Gallup Daily tracking/the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index survey January through June 2012, with a random sample of 177,662 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Douglas A. McIntyre

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