One in five Americans say that they have struggled to afford food for themselves or their family in the past year.
For many people living in poverty, what they're actually thinking about is where do I get money for my next meal. —Pamela Atkinson

More Americans are struggling to afford food today than have since late 2011, according to a Gallup poll survey released Thursday. Twenty percent, or one in five, say they didn’t have enough money to buy food for themselves or their family in the past year.

The number of Americans struggling to pay for food is up from June, and close to the peak in November 2008, when the recession was at its deepest. "Americans' ability to consistently afford food has not yet recovered to the pre-recession levels seen in January through April 2008," the Gallup report said.

Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate in the Salt Lake City and a member of the Deseret News editorial board, works at food pantries and soup kitchens around the area. Atkinson says she has seen an increase in the number of people, and in particular the number of families, turning to these charities for their basic food needs.

"For many people living in poverty, what they're actually thinking about is where do I get money for my next meal," she said. "And they're trying to figure out how to do it without dipping into rent money. In terms of priorities, they’re thinking about one, shelter and two, how will they have enough food."

Persisting economic hardship

The 2.3 percent jump in the number of people saying they can’t afford food appears to contradict economic indicators that have pointed to signs of recovery. Since early 2011, unemployment has fallen from 9 percent to 7.3 percent, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 30 percent.

But it appears that the economic benefits of the recovery may not be shared by the poorer segments of society. A recent study from Emmanuel Saez at the University of California, Berkeley found that the gains of the recession have been drastically unequal — between 2009 and 2012 the top 1 percent of incomes grew by 31.4 percent while the bottom 99 percent of incomes only grew by .4 percent. So effectively, Saez concludes, the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of the gains of the recovery in that time.

"In sum, top 1 percent incomes are close to full recovery while bottom 99 percent incomes have hardly started to recover," Saez wrote.

Some workers are finding it difficult to find jobs equivalent to those they had prior to the recession, which Atkinson said adds to the problem. "I think people are experiencing the fact that if somebody who is salary earner, some of those jobs are just not coming back," she said.

The Gallup poll also noted that a contributing factor to the struggle with hunger is the stagnation of wages over the past few years. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data published last month, wages are failing to keep up with inflation, with the average hourly pay for a non-government, non-supervisory worker declining to $8.77 last month from $8.85 at the end of the recession in June 2009.

According to Gallup, this may "suggest that the economic recovery may be disproportionately benefitting upper-income Americans rather than those who are struggling to fulfill their basic needs."

And those low-income workers who are finding jobs again may in some ways be struggling the most, said Gina Cornia, the executive director at Utahns Against Hunger, a policy advocacy nonprofit that works to increase access to federal nutrition programs.

"For the working poor, yes the economy is improving, but it’s a double-edged sword," Cornia said. "As they are adjusting back into the job market, they find themselves maybe not making enough to make ends meet but making too much to qualify for things like food stamps."

Program cuts

The news of an increase in Americans struggling to afford food also comes as a number of government programs intended to provide food assistance are facing possible reduction, which Gallup says may mean that "even more Americans may struggle to afford food in the immediate future."

First, the budget cuts known as sequestration limit federal government funding that went toward food banks, Cornia said. Also, automatic cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, are set to go into effect in November, which will cut benefits for all food stamp recipients. Congress is also debating other cuts to food stamps — a proposal led by Eric Cantor, R-Va., would cut the program by $40 billion over 10 years.

"There’s sort of this perfect storm that’s brewing about low-income folks having enough to eat," Cornia said.

Atkinson said that the Congressional effort to cut the food stamp program is driven by a true desire to "weed out the fraud that they see and those using food stamps who are not entitled," but that such efforts might lead to cutting off people who are legitimately deserving.

Americans are generally supportive of food assistance programs that go to those who are truly in need. According to a recent Fox News poll, 94 percent of those surveyed were OK with food stamps going to a "laid-off worker who wants a job and doesn’t have the money to feed his family," but 91 percent had a problem with food stamps going to an "unemployed musician who doesn’t want to take a regular job which will pay him enough to live on."

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