Many welfare-reliant and working poor families experience financial difficulties
and develop strategies to cope with competing demands for limited
resources. Needs, resources, and the strategies of low-income families may
change as family circumstances and contextual conditions evolve in
response to changing policy environments. Such changes may affect
outcomes such as food security. This research draws upon two complementary
data sources to examine stability and change in food security in the
context of the post-1996 welfare reforms.
Food security is an indicator of family well-being and material hardship that
is likely to be affected by a household’s economic resources, Food Stamp
Program (FSP) participation, and the availability of time to carefully plan
food purchases and prepare meals. As such food security may be affected by
welfare reform and low-income employment. Recent studies provide indications
of the relationships among welfare, low-income employment, food
insecurity stability and change, and physical and mental health. This
research focuses on individual-level State-specific stability and change in
food security among low-income women.
Two complementary data sources are used in this study: longitudinal survey
data collected from random samples of initially welfare-reliant women
living in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods in four large urban counties
(Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, and Philadelphia), and longitudinal
qualitative interview data from initially welfare-reliant women living in
neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in Cleveland. These data were
collected under the auspices of the Manpower Demonstration Research
Corporation (MDRC) Project on Devolution and Urban Change. The
women’s 1998 baseline data and 2001 followup data were cross-tabulated,
using the four food security categories used in the Household Food Security
Scale—food secure, food insecure with hunger, food insecure with moderate
hunger, food insecure with severe hunger. The three food-insecure categories
were collapsed into one food-insecure category to create a dichotomous
food secure/food insecure variable for baseline and followup analysis.
In the survey sample (N=3210), 25.3 percent of those who were food secure
in 1998 were classified as food insecure in 2001, while 43.7 percent of those
classified as food insecure in 1998 were food secure in 2001. Multivariate
logistic regression analyses indicated that the number of children under 18
years old in the household, income, and physical and mental health status
were the most consistent predictors of transitions into and out of food security
over time. Among women who were food secure in 1998, the odds of transitioning
to food insecurity were increased among those who: had more minor
children in the household in 1998; those who had an increased number of
minor children in the household over time; those with lower income in 1998;
those with decreasing income over time; those with higher Center for
Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) scores in 1998; those with
increasing depression over time; those with worse self-reported health; and
those with worsening self-reported health status over time.
Among women who were food insecure in 1998, the odds of transitioning to
food security in 2001 were lower among those who had a larger number of
minor children in their households over time, those with decreasing income
over time, those with higher CES-D scores in 1998, those with increasing
depression scale scores over time, those with worse self-reported health
status in 1998, and those with worsening health status over time.
In the qualitative sample (N=36), a strong correlation emerged between
depression and food insecurity: 72.7 percent of those who scored low on the
depression scale were food secure in 2000 and 2001 compared to 21.4 percent
of those who scored high on the depression scale. Stated otherwise, nearly 80
percent of the women who scored high on depression in 1999 experienced
food insecurity in either 2000 or 2001 or at both later points in time.
Inductive analyses of the qualitative interviews provide some clues that help
understand the link between depression and physical health problems and
food insecurity. These data indicate that low-income women generally used
multiple strategies to prevent or reduce food hardships for their families.
The qualitative data also indicate that food-secure women tended to have
better employment and income outcomes than the food-insecure women.
They also tended to be less socially isolated.
Given the strong correlation between depression and food insecurity in this
sample, and other evidence that physical and mental health problems are
barriers to employment, one implication of these results is that the women
in the qualitative sample who were more depressed may have been less able
to obtain and maintain good jobs and less able to maintain the social
connections that would allow them to rely on family and friends for food
resources. Women who were depressed or had health problems may also
have been less able to engage in the various strategies necessary to achieve
food security with extremely constrained resources.
Taken together, these mixed-methods results suggest that depression and/or
health problems may interfere with the time- and labor-intensive strategies
many women employ to maintain adequate food for their families. These
results also suggest that access to economic and social resources contributes
to food insecurity among these low-income women. Depression and other
health problems are often thought of as barriers to employment. To the
extent that they compromise women's ability to pursue public or community-
based food resources or maintain ties with family that would allow
them to access assistance, depression or other health problems might also be
conceptualized as barriers to food security.
Recent research documenting an association between food insufficiency and
mental and physical health outcomes among a sample of initially welfare-reliant
women suggested that more research could help better understand the
relationship between household food insufficiency and the nutritional status
of household members, along with the immediate and long-term consequences
of nutritional deprivation on physical and mental health. The
mixed-methods results in this study suggest that the relationship may work
in the opposite direction as well: mental and physical health problems may
be barriers to food security for low-income women because such problems
impede their ability to engage in the range of activities necessary to achieve
or maintain food security.