The Role of Food Assistance Programs and Household Employment in Helping Food-Insecure Families Avoid Hunger

Year: 2003

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Kabbani, Nader S., and Mira Yazbeck

Institution: American University of Beirut

Project Contact:
Nader S. Kabbani
Department of Economics
American University of Beirut
3 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
New York, NY 10017


Since 1995, USDA has been tracking the prevalence of food insecurity and hunger at the national level through an annual Food Security Supplement to the Current Population Survey. The Supplement's questions form the basis of the Food Security Scale, which is used to classify households into three levels of food security: food secure, food insecure without hunger, and food insecure with hunger.

USDA's annual food security reports have consistently documented that the prevalence of food insecurity and hunger in the U.S. is higher among households with children than households with no children. Using multinomial logistic regression analysis, the authors found that households with children were more likely to experience food insecurity even after controlling for other factors. However, the authors also found that households with children were less likely to experience hunger. This finding suggests that food-insecure households with children may be drawing on personal and/or public resources to help them avoid hunger.

To explain this empirical finding, the authors assessed the extent to which household employment circumstances and Federal food assistance programs, which serve a larger share of families with children, play a role in helping households with children avoid hunger.

The employment variables in the analysis included the average number of jobs held, the average number of usual hours worked, and the average unemployment duration of adult household members, the employment status of the household head, and the proportion of household adults who were employed. While these variables affected hunger and food security, they did not fully explain the observed differences between households with and without children.

Controlling for participation in food assistance programs was not a straightforward exercise. At the same time, it is possible that the level of a household's food insecurity could affect the household's decision to participate in food assistance programs, resulting in a positive association between program participation and hunger. If so, then self-selection into the program must be controlled for to assess the degree to which program participation reduces food insecurity and hunger. It is expected that the program reduces hunger.

The authors addressed this self-selection problem in two separate ways. First, for the largest Federal food assistance program, the Food Stamp Program (FSP), they identified three State-level food stamp policy variables that affect participation but not food security: State use of short recertification periods (3 months or less); Federal food stamp outreach spending by State; and the timing of State implementation of the electronic benefit transfer system, a debit-like card that replaced traditional food stamp coupons in most States during the 1990s. The authors then followed a two-step procedure that used the predicted value of participation as an instrument in the food security equation. The authors found that participating in the FSP reduced the likelihood of a household’s experiencing food insecurity or hunger. However, program participation did not fully explain the observed differences between households with and without children.

Second, for households that experienced some degree of hunger during the course of a year, the authors studied whether participation in any of the four largest Federal food assistance programs was associated with lower levels of food insecurity during the last 30 days of that year. The programs covered in the analysis were the FSP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the School Breakfast Program (SBP). The authors found evidence that the FSP, NSLP, and SBP all helped households that experienced hunger during the year escape food insecurity. They also found that controlling for participation in the NSLP completely eliminated the observed differences between households with children age 5-16 and households without children. The results suggest that the NSLP plays an important role in helping households with school-age children escape hunger.