Assessing the Effect of Increasing Housing Costs on Food Insecurity

Year: 2008

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

Investigator: Fletcher, Jason M., and Susan H. Busch

Institution: Yale University, School of Public Health

Project Contact:
Jason M. Fletcher
Yale University
School of Public Health
60 College Street, #303
New Haven, CT 06520
Phone: 203-785-5760


Household food insecurity is a large and growing problem facing families living near or below the poverty level. Research has shown that food insecurity is associated with several shortrun and longrun consequences for children and adults, including poor nutritional outcomes, mental health problems, child behavioral problems, distress, negative family and social interaction, and diminished school performance. Economic factors, such as lack of savings, unemployment, and income variability, are also associated with food insecurity. Researchers have also begun to examine the individual- and community-level determinants of food insecurity status, including State economic and social characteristics. One potential determinant of household transitions into and out of food insecurity status that has so far received few scholarly inquiries is expenditure shocks. This study focuses on price fluctuations in the residential housing market to estimate the effect of one type of expenditure shock on food insecurity. While significant increases in housing costs are not predicted in the near future, this information provides insight about the effect of other expenditure shocks.

Housing costs are a significant share of household budgets, particularly among low-income families. Research has indicated that individuals residing in areas with relatively high housing costs are more likely to report food insecurity. However, the impact of changes in housing costs in the United States on the food security of individual families has yet to be studied. This paper extends prior literature by pursuing two intertwined research questions. First, the study assesses whether recent changes in housing costs have increased food insecurity among low-income households with young children. Second, the study explores whether this effect differs for important subgroups (individuals receiving housing assistance or food stamp recipients).

In order to address these research questions, this study uses nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). These data include detailed longitudinal information on demographics, social program participation, and the Household Food Security Scale recommended by USDA. Geographic identifiers allow us to append important county- and State-level characteristics, such as housing costs. To control for individual-level heterogeneity, this study uses household fixed effect models to examine the effect of changes in housing costs on changes in household food security. To assess whether social programs mitigate the effect of housing costs on food-insecurity status of at-risk families, the study uses information on family transitions onto food stamp and housing subsidy programs, as well as State-level information regarding program participation. This assessment provides evidence on whether expansions of these social programs in times of housing cost increases may promote the food security of at-risk families.

Overall, the study found considerable evidence that increases in rental costs lead to higher rates of food insecurity for low-income households. The results show these effects only for renters and find no effects for homeowners, which is an important test of the robustness of the reported findings. The results suggest that a $1,000 increase in annual rental costs is associated with a 5.4-percentage-point increase in household food insecurity (a 20-percent increase). In addition, the findings included evidence that households participating in social programs, such as food stamps and housing subsidies, are less able to weather these expenditure shocks, suggesting that these households may require additional social problem benefits in order to retain their food security.

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