Food Insecurity and Welfare Reform

Year: 2000

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

Investigator: Siefert, Kristine, Mary E. Corcoran, and Colleen M. Heflin

Institution: Poverty Research and Training Center The University of Michigan School of Social Work

Project Contact:
Kristine Siefert, Ph.D., MPH
Poverty Research and Training Center
The University of Michigan
School of Social Work
540 E. Liberty St., Suite 202
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-2210


Despite economic growth over the past decade, a number of studies have found that food insecurity and hunger are significant and ongoing problems in the United States, and welfare reform has raised concerns about possible increases in their incidence among poor women and children. In 1998, an estimated 3.6 percent of all households were hungry. Poor single mothers, particularly those who are Black or Hispanic, are at especially high risk: almost a third of food-insufficient individuals live in single-woman-headed families with children. In 1998, 10.4 percent of single-woman-headed households, 8.2 percent of Black and 6.7 percent of Hispanic households, were hungry.

Recent research also has shown that an inadequate household food supply is significantly associated with low energy and low nutrient intakes. Yet few of the studies monitoring welfare reform consider its health consequences, and little is known about the health status of recipients since the passage of welfare reform. Siefert, Corcoran, and Heflin take on these issues in their investigation of the prevalence and correlates of food insufficiency and its effects on physical and mental health.

The authors use data from two waves of the Women’s Employment Study, a panel survey of 753 mothers who were receiving cash assistance in an urban Michigan county in February 1997. Staff of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research collected the data in faceto- face, in-home, structured interviews between August and December of 1997 and again in 1998. Survey respondents were single, female U.S. citizens between 18 and 54 who claimed a racial identity of non-Hispanic White or African-American. The study uses the same definition of food insufficiency as the NHANES III, sometimes or often not enough food to eat, which is narrower than the USDA definition of food insecurity.

Food insufficiency rates were high in their sample: 35 percent of the current and former welfare recipients were food insufficient at some time during the study. Women over age 35 and those on welfare for 7 or more years were more likely to report food insufficiency in both 1997 and 1998. Women working fewer than 20 hours a week and those lacking a high school education were more likely to report food insufficiency in one or both years. The authors also found a relationship between being sanctioned while on welfare and experiencing temporary or recurrent food insufficiency. More than a quarter of the women who were food insufficient in both years and more than a third of those who were food insufficient in 1998 reported having been sanctioned by having their welfare benefits reduced.

Women who reported food insufficiency were also more likely to report limitations in physical functioning, to rate their overall health as fair or poor, to meet the diagnostic screening criteria for major depression, and to lack a high sense of mastery or control over their lives. Using logistic regression analysis and controlling for baseline health status, individual characteristics, and risk factors known to influence health, the authors found that persistent food insufficiency significantly predicted fair or poor self-rated health and lack of a high sense of mastery. Women who were food insufficient only in 1998 were also significantly more likely to meet the criteria for major depression, and less likely to report a high sense of mastery, than food-sufficient women in the sample.

The authors argue their findings are noteworthy because self-rated health is a well-validated predictor of subsequent mortality and morbidity. Their results suggest that preventing food insufficiency may lower the risk of major depression, which is significantly associated with failure to move from welfare to work. A strong association between food insufficiency and lack of a high sense of mastery also indicates that good nutrition may be a critical factor in socioeconomic success as well as in health.

Although the authors caution that limitations of measurement and self-reported data must be considered in interpreting the results of their research, their findings add to growing evidence that household food insufficiency can adversely affect physical and mental health. They also find that the effects are not permanent if food insufficiency is short-term, implying that timely nutritional intervention may prevent or reverse adverse health effects.