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.