Institute Insights: October 2018


  Suaahara II partners with the local government to provide nutrition support materials to households with malnourished children.  Photo by Kesi Marcano-Collier.

From the Director

As fall arrives, Bread for the World Institute staff continue to analyze the U.S. government data on food insecurity and poverty, and the U.N. data on global food insecurity and malnutrition, that were released in recent weeks. As we mentioned in our last issue, these yearly reports give us snapshots of the hunger situation in the country and in the world. Statistics are now available for calendar year 2017.

In the Institute, we work at the intersection of advocacy and research; our research is action-oriented. As we explain on our website, we use research as a tool to uncover strategies that can move us in the right direction—toward the end of hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity. Focusing on the main causes of hunger—the biggest barriers—we bring together information in ways that help identify effective next steps for policymakers. Combining the most important facts with an assessment of what these facts mean helps policymakers assess the implications of upcoming decisions. How does current policy affect hungry people, and will proposed changes help or hinder their efforts to put food on the table?

Hunger and malnutrition do not look the same from one country to the next, from one community to the next, or even from one child in a family to another. Many specifics of anti-hunger initiatives must be tailored to the context. But there are also broad causes which, if addressed, would enable a substantial number of people who now struggle with hunger to provide for themselves and their families. One of these causes is conflict. See “Conflict Traps Millions on the Verge of Starvation” in this issue for an update on how violence has brought famine and near-famine conditions to Yemen.

Also in this issue, we take a closer look at several problems that contribute to the high levels of food insecurity and poverty in the United States—high rates that persist despite our current low unemployment rate. They include pay gaps due to racial and gender bias that put people of color and women at higher risk of hunger; wage theft, which disproportionately affects low-wage workers and further lowers their modest take-home pay; and hunger among people who are working to qualify for higher-paying jobs by attending community college.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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Children in countries in conflict are twice as likely to experience hunger. Infographic by Derek Schwabe / Bread for the World Institute

Conflict Traps Millions on the Verge of Starvation; Global Hunger Increased in 2017

By Michele Learner

Conflict is the cause of the near-famine conditions in Yemen, currently considered the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. After a brief easing of hostilities this summer, while mediators tried and failed to broker a peace agreement, fighting in much of the country has flared again.

The World Food Program reported in September 2018 that time is running out for millions of people trapped in near-famine conditions. Of Yemen’s 29 million people, 8.4 million face starvation unless help reaches them in time. An additional 3.5 million people are likely to be in this situation within weeks because the falling exchange rate is causing the prices of basic foods to rise rapidly. Save the Children added that many more children than before—5.2 million—are at risk of famine. The previous figure was 4.2 million.

The World Food Program said that Yemen urgently needs new entry points for humanitarian assistance to reach those in need. The port city of Hodeida, through which nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s imports come, is currently the scene of fierce fighting. Save the Children reported that this could damage or temporarily close the route through which humanitarian supplies are transported.

Bread for the World Institute has been active in focusing attention on the four countries threatened by famine in 2017 and 2018. For example, The Face of Famine in South Sudan: A Call to Bridge the Humanitarian-Development-Diplomacy Divide, published in April 2018, examines the causes of the famine and near-famine conditions in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, and makes recommendations to help save additional lives.

Sadly, the situation in South Sudan remains catastrophic. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reported in June 2018 that fighting had escalated in many parts of the country in the preceding months. NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland said, “From what I’ve witnessed and what displaced people tell me, a worst-case nightmare scenario is already on our doorstep.” About 7 million people, or two-thirds of the population, are at crisis levels of hunger. South Sudan is extremely dangerous for aid workers, more than 100 of whom have been killed since the war began in 2013.

In addition to Yemen and South Sudan, the “four famine countries” include Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. In Somalia, conditions remain grim. An estimated 2.2 million people faced crisis levels of hunger in 2017, and 1.5 million people have been displaced in the past two years. Malnutrition rates among children are still very high. The severe drought continues, as does conflict among armed groups. Action Against Hunger reports that while emergency humanitarian assistance is still critical in many areas, providing it has become more complicated because some regions are now controlled by Islamist militants.

Conditions in some parts of northeastern Nigeria have stabilized recently. Other areas, however, particularly Borno State, remain at Level 3 (Crisis) on the IPC scale that is used to gauge the severity of hunger emergencies. FEWSNET, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, considers these areas likely to escalate to Level 4 (Emergency) through at least January 2019. Level 5 on the IPC scale is Famine. FEWSNET adds that some areas remain inaccessible to aid workers, and conditions in these places are believed to be similar or worse than in neighboring areas that have been liberated from Boko Haram.

Given these and other conflicts, it is not surprising that the United Nations reported in September that, after decades of gradual decline, 2017 was the third year in a row that the global hunger rate increased. There were 821 million people suffering from hunger in 2017—one person in nine of the world’s population. The U.N. report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, identified conflict and climate change as key factors in this increase. Bread for the World Institute’s 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, discusses the impacts of conflict and climate change on global hunger and recommends strategies to reduce these impacts.

Michele Learner is associate editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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The federal minimum wage would be much higher, if it had been keeping up with a growing economy.

Low Unemployment and Millions of Food-Insecure People: Another Look

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

In the last issue of Institute Insights, we reported on the 2017 data on food insecurity among U.S. households. In 2017, the percentage of Americans who were food insecure decreased from 12.3 percent (41.2 million people) to 11.8 percent—a statistically significant decline, yet one that still left more than 40 million food insecure people in the United States. Seven years into the economic recovery, the country has yet to return to the 2007 pre-recession food insecurity rate of 11.1 percent.

The data on poverty in 2017, released a week later, tell a similar story. The overall poverty rate fell from 12.7 percent in 2016 to 12.3 percent in 2017. The United States had 39.7 million people living below the federal poverty line in 2017, down from 40.6 million people in 2016. Although this decrease to 12.3 percent was not statistically significant, the good news is that in 2017, the poverty rate finally fell below the 2007 pre-recession rate of 12.5 percent.

The news is not as encouraging when we compare today’s poverty rate to that of 2000. As the 21st century began, the U.S. poverty rate was 11.3 percent. Although poverty increased far more quickly during the recession, it had been on the increase for several years before the recession began. The 2017 data shows that poverty has risen a full percentage point, from 11.3 percent to 12.3 percent, since 2000.  In contrast, according to noted economist Jared Bernstein, poverty rates fell significantly in the 1990s.

The recent improvements are happening too slowly to end hunger by 2030, as our country committed to do. The gradual pace also makes it clear that the actions needed to speed up progress have not been taken, such as targeting programs and investments in households with the greatest need. These include households of color as well as female-headed households across demographics. Such households are at least twice as likely to experience hunger and poverty as the overall U.S. population—just as they were in 2017 and for at least 50 years prior to that.

See the tables below for more specific information on food insecurity rates, including racial disparities.

Notably, households headed by a single mother are far more likely to be food insecure than those headed by a single father (30.3 percent versus 19.7 percent). Households headed by women of color are affected by both racial and gender disparities. The 2017 poverty rates of households headed by white women (20.9 percent) and all households of color (between 18.3 and 21.2 percent), while high, are significantly lower than those headed by either African American women (33.3 percent) or Latina women (34.3 percent).

Table 1. Food Insecurity and Poverty Rates by Race

Table 2. Food Insecurity and Poverty Rates by Household Type

The very slow pace of progress at a time when the national unemployment rate has fallen to 3.9 percent reinforces the point Bread for the World has emphasized for some time: while a strong economy is important, it is not enough to move the country much closer to ending hunger and food insecurity. We also need racial and gender equity so that men and women of color and white women do not face the kind of entrenched bias that has led to entrenched pay gaps.

Equity is a term that focuses on equal outcomes for groups. It helps emphasize the need for targeted approaches to meet the unique needs of each community. Currently, outcomes are largely shaped by the absence of policies and practices that build and reinforce racial and gender equity.

For example, we previously discussed the role of occupational segregation in maintaining racial and gender pay gaps. Being disproportionately represented in the country’s 10 lowest-paying occupations will, clearly, perpetuate income disparities. Undoing job segregation will help dismantle structural inequalities.

This is a start, but much more needs to be done to speed up our progress against food insecurity and eliminate longstanding inequalities. It will require applying a racial and gender equity lens to a wide range of policies and practices, including—but not limited to—housing, child care, criminal justice, health care, and initiatives to alleviate poverty.

Marlysa D. Gamblin is domestic advisor for policy and programs, specific populations, with Bread for the World Institute.

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Photo: Rick Reinhard for Bread for the World

Dignified Work Versus Wage Theft

By Michele Learner

A major theme of Bread for the World Institute’s 2018 Hunger Report, The Jobs Challenge, is the importance of dignified work and respect for the dignity of workers. The report and several previous articles in Institute Insights discuss a number of the key elements of dignity. Perhaps the most important is being paid fairly for one’s work.

I think most Americans would agree that if someone is working full-time, year-round, she should not have to go hungry. Her job should pay enough that she can afford to meet basic needs such as shelter and food. What many people may not realize, however, is that a startling percentage of U.S. workers are not paid enough to live on.

At the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a full-time minimum wage worker, taking no time off, earns about $15,000 a year. That is about $4,000 less than it would take to bring even a single person up to the federal poverty line, much less a worker with a child.

One-third of all workers are paid $12 an hour or less. Wages of $12 an hour, 40 hours a week, add up to an annual income of about $29,000. That is the federal poverty line for a family of four. This means that one-third of all U.S. workers are working for poverty-level wages.

In addition, practices known as “wage theft,” which bend or break labor laws to the financial benefit of employers, cost workers a significant amount of money and are not usually obvious to someone who has just accepted a job. These thefts, of course, leave workers with even less money to pay for food, housing, and other basic needs.

One common type of wage theft affects mainly tipped workers, who can legally be paid only $2.13 an hour “plus tips.” If the tips do not add up to the minimum wage of $7.25, employers are supposed to make up the difference. Clearly, if they do not, restaurant servers and other workers who depend on tips will take home less, quite possibly far less, than the $15,000 annually that a minimum-wage job would pay.

Another type of wage theft occurs through corporate taxes. If an employer tells the IRS that an employee is an “independent contractor,” the employer does not have to pay his or her half of the person’s Social Security and other payroll taxes. Instead, the worker must assume 100 percent of these costs. Thus, by categorizing workers as independent contractors for tax purposes, employers effectively steal a portion of their wages. To worsen matters, employers are not legally required to inform workers that they have been classified as independent contractors. Employees are frequently shocked to learn that they are indebted to the IRS upon filing their personal taxes. Being considered an independent contractor has other disadvantages. For example, they are not guaranteed most of the protections granted to employees, such as workers’ compensation and health and safety benefits.

Other examples of wage theft include employers’ failure to pay overtime or permit work breaks prescribed by law.

Wage theft has an enormous impact on workers, particularly the lowest-paid workers. In a study of the 10 most populous states, researchers found that 2.4 million year-round minimum wage workers lost an average of $3,300 annually to wage theft. This pushes them deeper into poverty. Based on this research, the Economic Policy Institute estimates the annual losses to workers nationwide at $50 billion.

The 2018 Hunger Report discusses the understaffing and underfunding of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing wage laws. There are only 1,000 investigators to cover 7.3 million workplaces with 135 million workers.

Even with this limited capacity, recent research found that since 2000, more than 4,000 actions by the U.S. Department of Labor and eight state regulatory agencies have led to $9.2 billion in penalties paid by major corporations. In addition, more than 1,200 successful collective action cases resulted in $8.8 billion in penalties. While these cases covered a variety of workers, low-wage workers were disproportionately represented among the victims of wage theft—and, of course, they were the ones who could least afford it. The 12 companies that paid the largest dollar amounts in penalties included Walmart, FedEx, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.

The importance of enforcing the laws against wage theft is not often mentioned in broader discussions of workers’ rights or unions, but should not be overlooked.

Michele Learner is associate editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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The overall rate of food insecurity among college students is 36 percent—much higher than the national average of 11.8 percent, according to researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Photo: Mark Fenton / Bread for the World

Food Insecurity During Finals: Hunger Among College Students

By Christian Brooks

This fall semester, the United States has 20 million college students—6.7 million in two-year programs and 13.3 million in four-year programs.

We don’t often think of college students as being vulnerable to hunger. But higher education offers more variety and flexibility than in the past. It is also increasingly difficult to find a good job without at least some higher education. For both of these reasons, today many students are older than 22, many work part-time or full-time, and some are parents. The “traditional college experience” is far from the universal college experience.

The rising cost of tuition and books is clearly one very important contributor to food insecurity. Students may be forced to choose between buying books and buying food. Housing can also be expensive. In towns with major universities, renting an apartment can cost 20 percent or more above the market rate. Most students ages 18 to 49 do not qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Any number of other factors affect students’ ability to put food on the table, just as for the rest of the U.S. population. So far, there has been little formal research on food insecurity among college students. Studies have found, however, that community colleges have higher hunger rates than four-year institutions, and that colleges in parts of the country that have struggled economically also have higher-than-average rates.

In 2015, the Wisconsin HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice published Hungry to Learn, a groundbreaking study of community college students. Its follow-up study, one of the largest ever done, included more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. This study found that two in three community college students are food insecure, and between 13 percent and 14 percent are homeless.

The third and most recent report, Still Hungry and Homeless in College, included four-year colleges for the first time. Researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that the overall rate of food insecurity among college students was 36 percent—much higher than the national average of 11.8 percent.

As we might expect, students of color experienced higher food insecurity levels. While the overall rate of food insecurity was 36 percent, Black and Latino students’ food insecurity levels were 50 percent. One reason is that, due to deep and longstanding racial inequities, parents of color have fewer financial resources available to help pay for college expenses than white parents.

As mentioned earlier, food insecurity also tends to be higher in areas with economic challenges. One such area is Appalachia. The authors of a study published in the March 2018 journal Nutrients report that to their knowledge, their study is the first to investigate “the prevalence of food insecurity at a central Appalachian university.” It found that more than one-third of students (36.6 percent) were food insecure.

Lack of adequate nutritious food leads to poor academic performance and a higher risk of not graduating. Food insecure students are less likely to perform well in class and often have increased emotional burdens that lead to lower grades and health concerns.

Understanding from its research that food insecurity is widespread among U.S. college students, in fall 2018 the HOPE Center founded the College and University Food Bank Alliance “to provide support, training, and resources to campus-based food banks/pantries and other food-insecurity initiatives that primary ly serve students.”

Disparities in income and food security rates mean that many students of color and students from low-income families, as well as most or all students who grew up in the foster care system or who are homeless, could benefit from extra support to ensure that they graduate and have credentials in their chosen field. College can break the cycle of poverty, but only if students can meet their basic needs while in school and graduate without crippling amounts of debt.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher-education policy at Temple University and the lead author of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab reports, said that for students from low-income families, the cost of basic necessities is a significant barrier to doing well in school.

As a result, she urges higher education institutions to double down on providing services to help financially strapped students graduate. Homeless students, students forced to leave foster care to fend for themselves on their 18th birthday, students who grew up with very few material resources, and other students who struggle to afford an education are a great investment, she argues, “because these people have clearly exhibited a resilience that almost any employer would benefit from."

Christian Brooks is a racial equity fellow with Bread for the World Institute.

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from our Resource Library

For Education

  • Election Resources

    One of the best times to raise the issues of hunger and poverty is during election campaigns. Engage candidates in your state/district on hunger and poverty using our elections resources.
  • U.S. Hunger and Poverty State Fact Sheets

    These fact sheets provide a snapshot of hunger and poverty in the United States and in each state plus Washington, D.C. 

  • Conflict and Fragility Are Hunger Issues

     Conflict is a main driver of the recent increase in hunger around the world and of forced migration. Hunger also contributes to conflict. 

For Faith

  • The Bible on Health as a Hunger Issue

    “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith.” These words from Colossians 2:6 remind us of the faith that is active in love for our neighbors.

    The Bible on...

  • Unity Declaration on Racism and Poverty

    A diverse body of Christian leaders calls on the churches and Congress to focus on the integral connection.

    Dear Members of Congress,

    As the president and Congress are preparing their plans for this year, almost 100 church leaders—from all the families of U.S. Christianity—are...

  • In Times Like These … A Pan-African Christian Devotional for Public Policy Engagement

    This devotional guide invites deepened relationship with and among Pan-Af­rican people and elected leaders in the mission to end hunger and poverty.

For Advocacy


African at Heart

November 22, 2019


From the Blog