Working people are going hungry, according to OSU report

November 18, 2003

SALEM – Many working people in Oregon are going hungry. According to a new study released today by Oregon State University researchers, Oregon families experience more hunger than in other states – even when the head of household works full-time all year, or even if the family has two incomes.

The report, "Food Insecurity and Hunger in Oregon: A New Look," was presented to the Oregon Progress Board on Tuesday by Mark Edwards, an OSU professor of sociology, and Bruce Weber, an OSU Extension economist and professor of agricultural and resource economics.

The researchers reported that working Oregonians in two-income households have a hunger rate almost four times higher than those in the rest of the nation (3.9 percent in Oregon as compared to 1 percent nationally). And two-parent households with children have hunger rates more than three times higher than the national average (with 7.3 percent in Oregon as compared to 2 percent nationally).

The study was prompted by national reports that ranked Oregon right at the top of all the states in terms of hunger, yet in the middle in terms of poverty, for four of the last five years.

"We asked ourselves, 'How can that be?'" said Weber. "In order for Oregon to rank so high, either our rates of hunger are especially high for groups not usually at risk or we have a larger share of groups at risk of hunger. Or both."

The study suggests that in Oregon, hunger reaches many groups, including some that don't fit the traditional profile of the nation's hungry.

"Hunger rates in Oregon tend to be higher than the national average for almost all categories of households," said Weber. "But they are significantly higher for three categories that are not usually at risk of hunger: double-income households; households with at least one adult who works full-time year round; and households with two parents and children."

"Most of us don't think about people who work full-time having to drop by the food bank on their way home from work," said Edwards.

The OSU researchers found that people who work full-time and year-round have rates of hunger more than twice the national average (5.5 percent in Oregon as compared to 2 percent nationally).

"We anticipated that seasonal incomes might not be enough to cover food costs, but it came as a surprise to us that households with full-time, year-round workers have such high rates of hunger," said Edwards.

The report is based on an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which surveyed 50,000 adults across the nation, including more than 750 in Oregon.

"The survey asked 18 questions about hunger, including if people cut the size of meals, or skipped meals, because they lacked money or resources," explained Weber. "It asked them how often they or their children had to eat less, or skip meals, or not eat at all for a whole day because they had no money to purchase food."

"The survey asked people about real decisions they had to make during the last year," said Edwards. "It is surprising how many people who are working full-time and supporting a family can't make ends meet without cutting back on food. And yet that's the reality for many Oregonians."

The researchers defined hunger as occurring when eating patterns are severely disrupted because there is not enough money in the household for food. This could happen in many ways.

Some adults said that they ate less or skipped meals or said they went hungry or didn't eat because there was not enough money. And some said that their children ate less or skipped meals or went a whole day without food at some time during the previous year because there was not enough money for food. Some households experienced all these disruptions.

"While this kind of hunger could be caused by a single severe episode, two-thirds of those identified as hungry experienced this kind of hunger for three or more months in the previous year," said Weber.

The researchers examined migration patterns and found that it is not necessarily people moving in from other places who are hungry, but rather local people who move from one place to another within the same county who experience hunger.

The report "Food Insecurity and Hunger in Oregon: A New Look" was supported by the USDA's Economic Research Service, and is available online at: http://arec.oregonstate.edu/ruralstudies/publications.htm

In addition, the OSU Extension Service today released statewide and county-level profiles on "Poverty and Food Assistance in Oregon." These profiles examine the economic well-being, poverty statistics and food assistance programs in each county. They are available (as EM 8842-E) at: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/html/em/em8842-e/

Edwards and Weber are working on a companion report that will use Oregon Population Survey data to explore the causes of hunger in Oregon. They are examining the roles of regional housing costs, child care costs and health insurance coverage in explaining hunger rates, and the role of social supports in reducing hunger. This companion report should be ready for release in early 2004.

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Mark Edwards, Bruce Weber