Employment Instability and Food Insecurity of Rural North Carolinians During the Recession

Year: 2012

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: DeMarco, Allison C.

Institution: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Project Contact:
Allison De Marco
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
517 South Greensboro Street
Carrboro, NC 27510
Phone: 919-843-9911


With the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009, the United States experienced its longest, and by most measures, worst economic recession since the Great Depression, evidenced by unprecedented job losses, high rates of unemployment, and long-term unemployment. As a result, need for food assistance programs in the United States is the highest it has been in 34 years. Expenditures for these public programs increased 29 percent since fiscal year 2008 (October 2007 through September 2008) and have been growing for 9 years. In North Carolina, a State hard hit by the recession, the unemployment rate remained higher for longer than the four previous recessions, depressing revenues at the State level, and leading to increased demand for social services. North Carolina’s Food & Nutrition Services (NCFNS) caseload has risen by more than 30 percent over the last 2 years and even higher in some regions of the State. In the midst of the recession in 2008, food stamp usage rates were 11.3 percent in rural North Carolina compared with 8.8 percent in urban parts of the State. Further, potentially due to the downturn in the economy, households that never before received NCFNS benefits entered the system. Caseloads rose from 345,199 to 601,820 North Carolina households from January 2005 to January 2010. In addition to caseload increases caused by the economic downturn, participation continued to climb in North Carolina following policy changes that eased the application process and relaxed income eligibility requirements in July 2010; caseloads rose to 666,246 households by August 2010. This policy change masks some of the caseload change attributable to the recession.

One important support for individuals and families encountering economic distress is access to food assistance programs that sustain the nutritional needs of these populations. Participation in such programs is vitally important to the well-being of children and families, particularly in rural regions. In these regions, the burden of nutrition-related disease is greater and there is less access to full-service supermarkets and healthy food. Although the largest numbers of low-income families eligible for nutrition programs live in urban areas, the proportion of families who are income-eligible is higher in rural areas. Further, combining suburban and central cities as metro rates, participation in the School Breakfast Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is 50 percent higher in rural areas, Child and Adult Care Food Program participation is 31 percent higher, and National School Lunch Program participation 37 percent higher. The discrepancy is similar for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Further, in rural settings food cost is high and quality is limited due to the distance from major distribution centers and lack of competition given the dearth of food stores.

This study used North Carolina data (n=669) from the longitudinal Family Life Project, a representative sample of predominantly low-income, rural families in North Carolina (oversampled for African American and low-income families), to examine:

  1. how the economic downturn impacted parents’ work
  2. how those conditions are related to economic strain, food insecurity, and public assistance program participation, as well as supports that may buffer these experiences

The study used data from the 36-month home visit, collected July 2006 to October 2007, to capture conditions prior to the recession and the 58-month home visit, collected July 2008 to December 2009, to capture conditions during the recession. Extensive data were collected including demographics, economic well-being, and information about maternal work experiences. Descriptive, bivariate, and regression analyses were conducted.

The study revealed fairly high employment and full-time work hours on average across the waves. However, over one-third of the sample reported a major employment change (that is, starting or stopping a job, major changes in work responsibilities such as promotions or demotions, or significant changes in hours). Over one-third reported reductions in work hours, nearly one-quarter switched to a nonstandard shift, and over 1 in 10 experienced reduced pay or unemployment. Nearly half of the participants (47.8 percent) experienced at least one indicator of employment distress, which may have been a lost job, reduced pay, limited hours, moving to temporary status, or moving to a job with a nontraditional shift. In bivariate analyses, food insecurity rose significantly across waves. Examining the relationship between employment distress and economic strain and food insecurity, the study revealed that, after controlling for family demographic characteristics, distress was related to higher economic strain. However, it was not significantly related to food insecurity. Lower maternal education and greater rurality (geographic isolation) also predicted work distress. When looking at the relationship to public assistance program use, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SNAP, and unemployment insurance (UI), distress was associated with increased SNAP and UI use only. Moving into a nontraditional shift job and becoming unemployed were related to increased use of all three public assistance programs. Buffers of food insecurity and economic strain, including social support and public assistance programs, were also examined. Social support from family members and SNAP participation buffered against experiences of food insecurity, while community-level social support and UI use protected against economic strain.

This study illuminated how the recession has impacted rural families in one Southern State. Rural residents are more likely to be underemployed and to work in industries that require non-standard shifts, both of which increased in this sample. These schedules can negatively impact employees who experience increased stress and fatigue, increased health complaints, and reduced feelings of well-being. These findings can enable policymakers to make more informed decisions about how to craft or modify policies and programs to better meet the situations present in these communities. Economic development initiatives are needed to address the limited job opportunities in rural settings as well as community-building strategies that can be used to increase access to social support and provide outreach to rural residents around existing public programs.