Hunger in America: 2012 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts

World Hunger Education Service

Hunger in the United States

Three years after the onset of the financial and economic crisis, hunger remains high in the United States. The financial and economic crisis that erupted in 2008 caused a dramatic increase in hunger in the United States. This high level of hunger continues in 2010, according to the latest government report (with the most recent statistics) released in September 2011 (Coleman-Jensen 2011).

  • In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States 1 (Coleman-Jensen 2011, p. v.)
  • In 2010, about one-third of food-insecure households (6.7 million households, or 5.4 percent of all U.S. households) had very low food security (compared with 4.7 million households (4.1 percent) in 2007. In households with very low food security, the food intake of some household members was reduced, and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because of the household’s food insecurity (Coleman-Jensen 2011, p. v., Nord 2009, p. iii.) .
  • In 2010, children were food insecure at times during the year in 9.8 percent of households with children (3.9 million households.) In one percent of households with children,one or more of the children experienced the most severe food-insecure condition measured by USDA, very low food security, in which meals were irregular and food intake was below levels considered adequate by caregivers (Coleman-Jensen 2011, p. vi).
  • The median [a type of average] food-secure household spent 27 percent more on food than the median food-insecure household of the same size and household composition (Coleman-Jensen 2011, p. vi)..
  • Background: The United States changed the name of its definitions in 2006 that eliminated references to hunger, keeping various categories of food insecurity. This did not represent a change in what was measured. Very low food insecurity (described as food insecurity with hunger prior to 2006) means that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food. This means that people were hungry ( in the sense of “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by want of food” [Oxford English Dictionary 1971] for days each year (Nord 2009 p. iii-iv.).

Poverty in the United States

The official poverty measure is published by the United States Census Bureau and shows that:

  • In 2010, 46.9 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 — the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty . This is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty rates have been published (DeNavas-Walt 2011, p. 14).
  • The 2010 poverty rate was 15.1 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 1997. This is the highest poverty rate since 1993, but 7.3 percentage points lower than the poverty rate in 1959, the first year for poverty estimates. (DeNavas-Walt 2011, p. 14).
  • The 2010 poverty rate for Hispanics was 26.6 percent, for Blacks 27.4 percent.
  • In 2010, the poverty rate increased for children under age 18 from 20.7 percent to 22.0 percent. (DeNavas-Walt 2010 p. 14).
  • 20.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty. This means their family’s cash income is less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four (DeNavas-Walt 2011, p. 19).
  • 49.9 million people or 16.3 percent of the American people, do not have medical insurance (DeNavas-Walt 2011, p. 23).

In 2011 the Census Bureau published a supplemental poverty measure for the first time (US Census Bureau 2011b). This new measure addresses seven concerns that have been raised about the official poverty measure, including the fact that the offical poverty measure does not reflect the effects of key government policies that alter the disposable income of families and thus their poverty status, such as the SNAP/food stamp program. (For a good brief discussion of these issues see 2011b, p.1-3.) Taking these adjustments into account, the supplemental poverty measure showed a 3 million increase in the number of poor people in 2010, compared to the official poverty rate. Who is poor shows some striking changes. The percentage of children in poverty is 27.7 percent of the total population in poverty with the supplemental measure and 36.1 with the official measure; while people over 65 are 12.7 percent of the total population in poverty in the supplemental measure and 7.6 percent in the official measure (2011b, p.3-8). The supplemental poverty measure does measure poverty more accurately, and it is gratifiying to see that programs to reduce poverty and hunger among children have had an impact.

Causes of Hunger and Poverty

(Hunger is principally caused by poverty so this section will focus on causes of poverty.)

There are, we believe, three main causes of poverty in the United States: poverty in the world; the operation of the political and economic system in the United States which has tended to keep people from poor families poor, and actual physical mental and behavioral issues among some people who are poor.

Poverty in the world There are a lot of poor people in the world. An estimated 2 billion people are poor, and the same amount hungry (World Hunger Facts) They are much, much, poorer than people in the United States. As can be imagined, people do not want to be hungry and desperately poor. In the world economic system there are two main ways in which relatively poor people have their income increased: through trade, and through immigration. Trade, we believe, is the most important.

  • Trade. It is important to understand some basic economics. We in the United States live in a rich country, that has a large amount of capital–machinery, etc.–to produce things relative to the amount of labor–people that want to work. Poor countries have a lot of labor, but relatively little capital. There is a basic idea of economics–the factor price equalization theorem–that states that wages in rich countries will tend to go down and increase in poor countries through trade (Wikipedia 2010b). Thus China, with low wages, puts pressure on wages in the United States, as production is shifted to China from the United States. This movement of production from richer to poorer countries is initiated by corporations, not individuals, but it does shift jobs and income to poorer countries and people, and has been doing so for the last 30 years or so. Lower income people in the United States are particularly vulnerable to such shifts.
  • Immigration. A clear strategy for poor people is to go where there are higher paying jobs (often opposed to the alternative of no jobs at all). Thus immigration has been a major response to poverty by people in poor countries.

The operation of the US economic system The operation of the US economic and political system has led to certain people/groups being relatively disenfranchised.

The normal operation of the economic system will create a significant amount of poverty.

  • First, in a free enterprise economy, there is competition for jobs, with jobs going to the most qualified. On the other hand, there is almost always a significant amount of unemployment, so that not everyone will get a job, with the major unemployment falling on the least qualified. It might be tempting to identify them as ‘unemployable’ but what is in fact happening is that the private enterprise system is not generating enough jobs to employ everyone.
  • Secondly, the top echelon of business has the power to allocate the profits of the enterprise, and certainly they have allocated these profits to themselves in recent years.

The operation of the US political system, The US political system, which should address the major problems of its citizens, is to a great extent not focused on fundamental concerns of poor people, but on other concerns.

  • Military and security expenditure represent half of US federal government discretionary expenditures, much larger that expenditures to assist poor people, and this budgeting is assisted by a strong web of political and financial connections which has been termed the “military-industrial complex.”
  • Corporations and the rich, through their ability to lobby Congress and the Administration effectively by such means as spending large amounts of money on lobbying efforts and on political campaigns of elected officials have succeeded in establishing their priorities, including tax breaks and subsidies..
  • The Democratic party, which used to be a party of the ‘working class’ has now set its sights on the ‘middle class’ as the target base of voters it must appeal to.


1. To get population figures from family size figures, multiply family size numbers by 2.58, the average family size.


Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2010.” ERR-125, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Econ. Res. Serv. September 2011.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2011. “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Earned Income Tax Credit.”>

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2011 “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Food Stamp Program.”

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). 2011. “Policy Basics: Introduction to TANF.”

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith. 2011. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-239. ” Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010.” U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2011

Holt, Eric. 2006. “The Earned Income Tax Credit at Age 30: What We Know.” The Brookings Institution. (2006).

Nord, Mark, Margaret Andrews, Steven Carlson. 2009. ” Household Food Security in the United States, 2008.” United States Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. ERR-49.

United States Bureau of the Census. 2011a. “Poverty Thresholds.”

United States Bureau of the Census. 2011b “The Research Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2010

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. 2011. “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2008–Summary.”

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. 2011. “National School Lunch Program.”>


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