A Growing Specter of Hunger

California's Recession, High Housing Costs Have Cut the Money Available to Buy Food

by Patricia McBroom

Hunger in California is an immense problem and it has grown by almost 50 percent in the past seven years, according to a new, statewide analysis released April 7.

Today, some 5 million people--one in every six state residents--experience chronic hunger. That is 1.6 million more than in 1987, said the report by Berkeley researchers.

Over 3 million additional low-income people are at high risk of becoming hungry.

The analysis was performed at the request of the state senate's Office of Research through the University's California Policy Seminar, a joint university/state government program. It was prepared by a team from the School of Public Health.

The first statewide analysis of hunger since 1987, the report shows the alarming effects of the 1989-92 economic recession on the ability of low income people to feed themselves and their children.

"Many poor working families who were above the poverty line four years ago are now below it and we see no way they can escape hunger. These families are in a desperate situation," said Linda Neuhauser, lead author on the report and executive director of Berkeley's Wellness Guide Project.

Co-authors are Sheldon Margen, professor emeritus of public health and an authority on nutrition, and Doris Disbrow, former lecturer in the School of Public Health.

Their analysis shows that between 1989-92, middle-class households lost an average of $2,200 or 6 percent of annual income. But low income people lost over 8 percent.

Poverty climbed from 12.5 percent of the population to 15.9 percent during the period, reaching a peak among children of 25.3 percent, or one in four.

If these trends continue, by the year 2000, one in every three children will be hungry in California, according to the report.

The researchers used the U.S. Poverty Index, established in 1966, as an indication of hunger, based on evidence that any family at or below the poverty line lives with chronic hunger.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, have shown that only 12 percent of households with incomes below the poverty line have adequate levels of basic nutrients.

Minimum-wage-earner families fall considerably below that line. A family of three with one minimum wage earner, for instance, makes only 73 percent of the income that is considered minimal to avoid poverty.

When the Poverty Index was originally designed, poor families spent at least 30 percent of their income on food, but in three decades, the cost of housing has increased so much, especially in California, that it now eats up the lion's share of a poor family's resources, leaving little money for food.

Some 50 percent of people living at or below the poverty line today say they spend 70 percent of their income on housing.

"Food programs were meant to be supplements to income for poor people. Now they have become the main subsistence programs," said Margen.

"We now depend on food stamps, school meals, senior nutrition and other food programs to provide the backbone of our response to hunger," he said.

The report said that enactment of the reforms contained in the Republican Party's Personal Responsibility Act would be "devastating."

Disbrow pointed out that the federal Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the effects of the Republican reforms would decrease funding for all food programs. The food stamp program alone would decrease by 16 percent over five years, she said.

The team is especially concerned about immediate efforts to rescind money appropriated for programs.

The hunger report makes it clear that spending money now on food to alleviate hunger will save much more later in terms of health care, crime, education and employment.

A dollar spent on food in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program, for instance, has been shown to save three dollars later in health care costs, because of the close links between nutrition and infant development.

Similarly, the school lunch program has proven to significantly increase academic performance.

"Policymakers face the choice of preventing or alleviating hunger now, or paying a much higher price in the future," said the report. "Ensuring food security is the first step toward fighting poverty. No other intervention will make as significant a difference to people who start and end their days on an empty stomach."

The picture of hunger traced by Berkeley researchers resembles the soup kitchen lines of the Great Depression. An astounding number, estimated at 2.7 million Californians, are using emergency food sources.

Chronic hunger occurs in regular spells when money runs out, at which point the parents start depriving themselves to feed their children, according to the researchers. Another typical family strategy is to cut down on the quality of food, to buy non-nutritious meals like popcorn or dilute the children's milk.

"Once the last food runs out, everyone is in trouble. Kids are sent to bed hungry and the parents hope they will get a school meal the next day," said Neuhauser.

The report recommends that all food programs in California, which now cover only about 50 percent of the eligible people, be expanded.

It also calls for broader reforms, beginning with an increase in the minimum wage to a level at which one worker can support a family.

Finally, the team urged that no more cuts be made in California's welfare program. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was cut by 14 percent between 1991 and 1994. The 1995-96 budget would take away another 10 percent, followed by a 15 percent cut after six months.

No state has made deeper cuts in welfare than has California, the report said.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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