Why Living Above the Poverty Line Doesn’t Guarantee Food Security

June 26, 2023 | 11:28 am
photo of a long dining table in a dark room, ready for dinner with candlelight, flowers, wine, tablecloth and place settings; the chairs are all empty waiting for guests to arriveJuliette F/Unsplash
Alice Reznickova
Former Contributor

If you are worried about the rising cost of food, you are not alone. In the United States, approximately 1 in 10 households experience food insecurity (although research suggests it’s actually many more than that). Dramatic inflation, coupled with the premature expiration of additional dollars for those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and new work requirements for some SNAP recipients, has led to widespread worry about hunger. This worry is backed up by the ever-increasing demand for food pantries (and here are some sample stories from Seattle, Central Ohio, and Maine).   

SNAP benefits help about 42 million people purchase food each month and, for some, this also means getting out of poverty. SNAP is designed to help those with gross incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines: $18,954 for an individual and $39,000 for a family of four (net income must be at or under the threshold). In the United States, 37.9 million people lived at or below this line in 2021. But does being above the poverty threshold mean you can actually afford food?   

New studies emerging across the country tell us, sadly, that may not be the case. Let’s explore why.

The federal poverty threshold doesn’t reflect real household budgets

The federal poverty threshold is deeply connected to food—not just because SNAP eligibility and benefit amounts depend on it, but also because the measure itself is linked to the cost of food. In the 1960s, when the threshold was introduced, the federal government determined that families spent about one-third of their household income on food, and if this was not enough for a specific household to purchase a government-determined meal plan each month, that household would be considered poor. Being poor therefore effectively meant not being able to afford food.

Sixty years later, we know the situation is more complicated and the original concept is outdated. Household incomes are no longer spent on the same items and services as in the 1960s. The introduction of new necessities such as technology, as well as skyrocketing costs for health care, education, and housing, now take up more space in a household budget.  Meanwhile, incomes have stagnated. In 2023, even households with higher incomes have competing expenses that make their food budget less flexible—or in some cases, nonexistent.

The poverty threshold is also standardized across the continental United States (Alaska and Hawai`i have slightly different thresholds), despite the fact that costs of living vary within and between states. Urban areas, for example, are often more expensive to live in than rural areas.

Studies show a need for reimagining poverty and well-being

Studies of living expenses are always difficult to conduct. Cost of living fluctuates across time and space, even within a single city over the course of a single year. Cost of living also differs across individual needs: a family with a toddler has different expenditures than a family with a teenager. And counterintuitively, our society imposes additional costs on poor people that are difficult to reflect in these calculations. For instance, banking services may be free for people who are able to keep their balances above a certain threshold, but people who can’t must pay a fee. On top of that, overdraft fees are punishing to low-income households. Those without bank accounts altogether lose a part of their paychecks to check-cashing services. For these reasons, it is difficult to have a complete understanding of the cost of living in different locations for different people.

But we can try. Or, we can at least do better than the current federal poverty threshold. Researchers in New York City have suggested a new measure called a self-sufficiency standard that calculates how expensive it is to be self-sufficient in the five boroughs. Unlike the federal poverty threshold, the self-sufficiency standard includes a more complete understanding of expenses families may encounter, including childcare, health care, transportation, and food.

Across New York City’s five boroughs, the self-sufficiency standard is roughly three to four times the federal poverty threshold. A family of four with one preschooler and one school-aged child would need an annual income of $85,507 in the Bronx and $130,802 in southern Manhattan to stay out of poverty.

While 12% of people in New York City are below the federal poverty threshold, 36% have incomes that fall below the self-sufficiency standard. This study does not measure food security directly, but the results imply that even households earning close to three times the federal poverty threshold may struggle to afford food in New York City, and many of them are excluded from SNAP benefits.

United Way came up with a new acronym to describe this situation: ALICE, for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Their most recent study shows that in Washington, DC, 33% of households had incomes below $92,736, what the study describes as the “minimum income level for survival” in Washington, DC.

The harsh reality of today’s economy

Why are so many families poor, or not self-sufficient?

While the causes are complex, we can do some simple math here: it turns out that the real value of our wages has declined over time. Our current minimum federal poverty wage, $7.25, was set in 2009. But this wage only gets us to the federal poverty guideline for an individual, and it assumes this worker never gets sick and never takes any vacation time (since many workers do not have access to paid sick leave and paid time off). To get to the level of self-sufficiency in the Bronx, each parent in a family of four would need to bring in almost $21 per hour, with access to sick leave and paid time off. In Washington, DC, it would be $22 per hour. The $15 minimum wage in New York City and $17 minimum wage in DC do not come close to those levels.

Food and farmworkers—the people who plant, tend, harvest, and serve our food—are some of the people most affected by food and economic insecurity. They are essential to our economy and to our health, yet they bring home some of the lowest wages and often need help feeding their own families. And BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) communities, which have endured centuries of racism and violence, still face steep income and wealth gaps.

We need to ask ourselves if someone should be expected to work multiple full-time jobs just to be able to feed themselves and their children. I am of the firm opinion that those who work hard and full-time should be able to not just reach the poverty threshold, not just be barely self-sufficient, but also thrive. When will our lawmakers catch on?

Fighting for a basic human right

We cannot fight food insecurity without tackling how we think about—and measure—poverty in the United States. Instead of an outdated measure that severely underestimates what it means to be low-income, we need a new measuring tool that is sensitive to geographies and individual needs. If we re-evaluate the federal poverty threshold, we will, as a society, be forced to acknowledge that many more people need help to access adequate nutrition, and that our assistance network needs to be adequately strengthened in response. This change would make sure that people who need assistance are eligible and can receive it, and that SNAP benefits are in line with real household budgets, which would ultimately be reflected in the health and well-being of our communities. But federal assistance is not enough.

Food is a human right, and it is not acceptable to have almost a third of US households living below the self-sufficiency—or survival—standard. Instead of supporting ever-bloating corporations with million-dollar paychecks for CEOs, our society needs to do more to help ensure that all workers—and particularly those who are doing the often less-visible work of feeding the rest of us—receive fair wages that allow their families and communities to thrive.