Food Security Stability and Change Among Low-Income Urban Women

Year: 2004

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

Investigator: London, Andrew S., and Ellen K. Scott

Institution: Syracuse University

Project Contact:
Andrew S. London
Dept. of Sociology
Center for Policy Research
Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs
426 Eggers Hall
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244-1020
Phone: 315-443-5067


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.