The Food Insecurity of the Lower-Middle Class

In stories about the ongoing conversation/debate over whether or not the food stamp program should be trimmed, a popular thing to do is mention that "47 million Americans are on food stamps." I know; I've done it plenty of times myself. The reason for that is because it's a nice, round, dramatic number. Using some arithmetic, it's 15% of the American population: when anything affects 15% of the population, it has to be examined thoroughly.

But there's a problem with using that number, and it's a scary one: It actually makes the problem seem a lot less serious than it is.

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To understand why, you have to look at the process of how food stamps are delivered. As is the case in any government-assistance program, policy makers have to draw the line somewhere in terms of who gets it and who doesn't. Everyone below this line qualifies, everyone above does not. While there are complex machinations at work, with all sorts of state-specific rules and tax-based deductions to consider, the basic line for an individual to quality for SNAP is $1,245 a month. If they gross less than that, they qualify for food stamps. If they gross a dollar more, they do not.

So, what happens to someone who earns $1,246 a month? Frankly, a whole lot of nothing.

Which is why the "47 million" number isn't quite accurate. If you're getting food stamps, you're not doing well. But if you're in the income bracket right above them -- those barely making enough to get by and also not getting any government assistance -- you're theoretically doing even worse. It's a classic bureaucratic Catch-22: Not rich enough to feel secure, not poor enough to qualify for assistance.

This under-reported "lower-middle class" bracket is what the new report by the Hamilton Project focuses on. How do they live? Predictably, not very well. For example, the children in lower-middle class households face a whole lot of hardships when compared to those living in next highest income level.

More than 24 percent of children (or approximately 1.7 million children) in the struggling lower-middle class are food insecure and approximately 23 percent are obese; almost 7 percent of these children simultaneously face both obesity and food insecurity. In stark contrast, approximately 85 percent of children (or more than 9.3 million children) living above 250 percent of the FPL face neither challenge.

The report is full of depressing and anger-inducing stats like this. But perhaps the bigger question is, just how many people fall into this category? As the report's intro notes:

This struggling lower-middle class consists of the 30 percent of working-age families with children who have incomes between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or between roughly $15,000 and $60,000, depending on family composition. Though not officially poor, these individuals and families experience limited economic security. One major setback could thrust them into economic chaos.

Take that "250 percent of the FPL" definition to the official Federal Poverty Guidelines, and you get single-person households with an income of $28,725 a year. That is what qualifies as lower-middle class. And you can bet a whole lot more people than the "47 million" of SNAP recipients fall into that bracket. (While stats are tough to come by, when workers in seven of the ten largest industries in America earn less than $30,000 a year, you know the number has to be huge.)

Which is all to say: It's time to broaden the conversation a bit. This battle over food stamps and food security shouldn't focus on the relatively small 15% using SNAP. That number's much too small. In reality, those in this country who are experiencing food insecurity is closer to 50%.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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