OSU report links low wages and high rent to food insecurity

March 7, 2005

SALEM – Low wage jobs, high unemployment and high housing costs combine to increase the risk of food insecurity for Oregonians, according to a new study released today by Oregon State University researchers.

"Households are considered to be food insecure when they report that their food didn't last to the end of the month, they didn't have money to buy more food and they could not afford to eat balanced meals," explained Bruce Weber, an OSU Extension economist and professor of agricultural and resource economics. Weber co-authored the study with OSU health economist Stephanie Bernell and OSU sociologist Mark Edwards.

Comparing Oregon statistics with national averages, the researchers found higher rates of food insecurity among many groups in Oregon, including households with two incomes (10.7 percent in Oregon as compared to 5.2 percent nationally) and households with at least one adult working full-time year round (14.0 percent in Oregon as compared to 7.6 percent nationally).

Households with children and renter households had even higher rates of food insecurity.

"The new study suggests that many factors may combine to explain food insecurity in Oregon, including restricted economic opportunities, housing costs and food-stamp policy," Weber said.

For example, the study showed that food insecurity is higher where unemployment is higher and where wages are lower. In addition, food insecurity is higher for low-income families in areas where rents are high. Food insecurity is lower in rural areas than in urban areas and higher among those who have recently moved. And food insecurity is lower in areas with higher rates of food-stamp use.

"Demographics and personal choices about work, school, marriage, childbearing and moving also seem to play a part in explaining household food insecurity," Bernell said.

The study was prompted by national reports that ranked Oregon near the top of all states in terms of food insecurity, yet in the middle for poverty. The most recent report found one of eight Oregon households is food insecure compared with one of nine nationally. Oregon has the 10th highest food insecurity rate (12.9 percent).

The report follows a 2003 study on hunger and food insecurity that found that working Oregonians with two-income households have a hunger rate almost four times higher than those in the rest of the nation. And two-parent households with children have hunger rates more than three times higher than the national average.

The reports are based on surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau of 50,000 adults across the nation, including more than 750 in Oregon, and on the 2000 Oregon Population Survey of 4,700 households in Oregon.

“The national 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.”

Edwards, the OSU sociologist, said the surveys asked people about "real decisions they had to make during the last year.”

"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," Edwards said. "And yet that’s the reality for many Oregonians.”

The OSU report, “Restricted Opportunities, Unfortunate Personal Choices, Ineffective Policy? What Explains Food Insecurity in Oregon,” was supported by the USDA’s Economic Research Service and the OSU Rural Studies Program. The report can be viewed, along with the 2003 report and other information about food insecurity, at: http://arec.oregonstate.edu/ruralstudies/pub_society.htm

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Bruce Weber