Accounting for Children's Food Insecurity in Immigrant Households

Year: 2007

Research Center: The Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago

Investigator: Kalil, Ariel

Institution: University of Chicago

Project Contact:
Ariel Kalil
Harris School of Public Policy Studies
University of Chicago
1155 East 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
Phone: 773-834-2090


Children of immigrants are the fastest growing component of the U.S. child population. Although immigrants make up only 11 percent of the total population, children of immigrants make up 22 percent of children younger than 6 in the United States. In light of immigrant families more limited use of government assistance programs (in addition to their higher levels of participation in the low-wage labor market and lesser likelihood of full-time, year-round work), it is not surprising that these families are poorer and suffer more material hardships than their native counterparts. In particular, children of immigrant noncitizens experienced more persistent and higher levels of food insecurity than the children of citizens, especially following welfare reform, which is worrisome because higher rates of food insecurity are associated with poorer outcomes in terms of young children’s health and well-being. Differences in rates of food insecurity have been linked in part to noncitizens’ lesser use of health and public assistance programs. However, little is known about other factors that may explain different rates of child food insecurity in the different populations. In immigrant populations, additional factors may account for higher levels of food insecurity, including parents’ citizenship status and parents’ integration into the community. Immigrant noncitizens are less likely to be aware of community programs and health services compared with their native and naturalized citizen counterparts. Immigrant parents are also more likely than their native counterparts to be Limited English Proficient (LEP). This lack of social and linguistic integration could result in higher rates of food insecurity if families are unable to make use of community resources that could ease material hardships.

This study draws data from the second wave of the public use version of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative sample of approximately 22,000 children enrolled in about 1,000 kindergartens during the 1998-99 school years. The children were on average 75 months old at the second wave. The sample is restricted to those families below 200 percent of the poverty threshold in wave 2 (based on household income and size). The final sample size is 6,794. The analysis relies on the eight-item Children’s Food Security Scale. Households that affirm two or more of the child-referenced items—typically reflecting that parents, due to financial difficulties, were forced to rely on a few kinds of low-cost foods to feed children and that they could not afford to feed the children a balanced meal—are coded as experiencing children’s food insecurity.

The analysis estimates separately the effects of the child’s birthplace, the parental birthplaces, and parental citizenship statuses on children’s food insecurity. It also uses as predictor variables measures of demographic characteristics (education, employment, and family size), family income and program participation (including health insurance), maternal depression and parenting, language use, perceived neighborhood safety and community support, urbanicity, and proportion of years in the United States.

The analysis relies on probit regression to account for the binary nature of the dependent variable. Model 1 regresses children’s food insecurity on the demographic variables. Model 2 adds income and program participation variables. Model 3 includes the measures of mothers’ depression and parental behavior. Finally, Model 4 adds the measures of social integration and the set of residential location variables. To correct for the clustered nature of the data a robust standard error estimator is used. The analysis also applies the Wave 2 survey sampling weight.

Analyses show that foreign-born children and those with noncitizen parents are at substantially greater risk of food insecurity than their counterparts with native parents. In contrast, low-income children whose parents are foreign-born but are citizens have similar rates of food insecurity compared with those with native parents. Specifically, the rate of children’s food insecurity in the total sample is 10 percent. Among low-income children in the sample with a native-born mother, the rate of food insecurity is 8 percent. However, foreign-born children and those with foreign-born noncitizen mothers have significantly higher rates of food insecurity (19 percent). In contrast, the difference between children with foreign-born citizen mothers and children with native mothers is not significant. Comparison of children’s food insecurity rates by fathers’ status yields similar results. For example, children with foreign-born citizen fathers have a rate of food insecurity comparable with children of native fathers, whereas those with noncitizen fathers experience levels of food insecurity on a par as those with noncitizen mothers.

Demographic characteristics (race, maternal employment and education, and household structure) account for all of the difference in rates of food insecurity between children with native and noncitizen fathers and about half of the difference between children with native and noncitizen mothers. Remaining differences based on mothers’ status are not accounted for by differences in family income, program participation, or maternal mental health and behaviors, although these variables are associated with children’s food insecurity in expected ways. In contrast, measures reflecting social integration, including mothers’ length of stay in the United States and their perceptions of the safety of their communities, account for the rest of the gap between children with native and noncitizen mothers.

Mothers who have arrived in the United States relatively more recently may be at a higher risk of alienation from systems of informal social support that are available to low-income and vulnerable populations in the United States. More recently arrived mothers may also have stronger economic ties to their countries of origin (for example, a greater likelihood of sending remittances home, which are unobservable in these data) that may account for their higher degree of economic hardship. To the extent that differences in children’s experiences of food insecurity are associated, ultimately, with differences in children’s health and well-being, it will be critical to develop programs and other mechanisms to help all families receive assistance to meet their needs and ensure their children’s economic security and healthy development.

Direct inquiries about this study to the project Contact listed above.