Heat or Eat? Cold Weather Shocks and Nutrition in Poor American Families

Year: 2002

Research Center: Joint Center for Poverty Research, University of Chicago and Northwestern University

Investigator: Bhattacharya, Jayanta, Thomas DeLeire, Steven Haider, and Janet Currie

Institution: Stanford University Medical School

Project Contact:
Jayanta Bhattacharya
Stanford Medical School
Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research
117 Encina Commons
Stanford CA 94305-6019


Poor American families with children may have to make difficult tradeoffs when they face high heating costs in cold weather. This study investigates whether poor American families spend less on food and reduce the amount and nutritional value of the food they eat during these cold periods.

One study found that the diets of poor American children are inadequate during winter. Two studies of British children, in contrast, failed to identify any relationship between excess winter mortality and deprivation. Economists have also examined nutritional resource sharing among members of poor families. Studies examining the extent to which poor families on food stamps will reduce their food consumption toward the end of a benefit month conclude that food consumption in poor families is potentially vulnerable to financial strains but that the parents are able to protect their children from the adverse effects of these strains to some extent.

The authors measured patterns of household spending on food and home fuel and patterns of nutritional wellbeing at the individual level. They used expenditure data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CEX) for 1980-98. The data on nutritional well-being are from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for 1988-94.

The authors examined spending in four categories—food eaten inside the home, food eaten away from home, clothing, and home fuel—in unseasonably cold or warm months. Because changes in spending over the course of a year by richer families are less constrained by financial resources, the authors used these families as a comparison group for the spending changes in poor families. In the analysis of nutritional outcomes, they compared the change in nutritional outcomes between summer and winter. Specifically, they compared the change in nutritional outcomes separately by age (children vs. adults) and income level (rich vs. poor). They define poor families as those whose incomes are below 150 percent of the poverty level and rich families as those whose incomes are more than 300 percent of the poverty level.

The study found that poor families spend less on food in months with unusually low temperatures. Both poor and rich families spend more on heating. While the dollar increase in heating expenditures for a poor family is less than that for a rich family, the change is a larger share of the poor family’s budget. In addition, both adults and children in poor families reduce their caloric intake during the winter. Caloric intake does not differ significantly between summer and winter for either adults or children in rich families.

The results suggest that poor American families with children spend more on home fuel at the cost of spending on food and nutritional well-being. Parents in poor households are not fully able to protect their children from the effects of cold weather shocks. Both children and adults in poor families eat less food during the winter.