For such a wealthy nation, hunger is shockingly widespread in the United States. Food insecurity has risen about a third since the recession, to 14 percent of households nationwide. So why is it so hard for the world’s richest economy to provide poor people with enough money to feed themselves? Now we have some numbers to help explain to lawmakers what to the rest of us has become painfully obvious.
It starts with a number we’ve been hearing a lot lately: $15. The movement for $15 an hour and union rights has transformed the conversation on inequality this election season. And it forms the basis of a new analysis that reveals one answer to the crisis of food insecurity.
According to The Century Foundation, bringing the nationwide hourly base wage to $15 by 2023 would free 1.2 million households from hunger. The households who would achieve food security—the ability to consistently meet basic nutritional needs—mirror the demographics of the low-wage workforce as a whole: about 44 percent, or half a million, would be black and Latino households. Nearly 350,000 would be single-parent households, who suffer disproportionately from hunger.
The wage hike—a measure already enacted in several states and cities—would yield long-term benefits that can’t be directly calculated. Food insecurity and low wages often go together, trapping families in unstable low-paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement, while also dealing with the chaos of navigating the public benefits system or food pantries to secure basic food supplies. The compounding effects of low wages and social deficits, plus other financial burdens like housing and utilities that often get sacrificed when food is scarce, force families into a state of constant distress, making it even harder to hold down a steady job.
A meaningful base wage relieves some of the exhaustion of coping with poverty. A $15 hourly minimum wage would primarily benefit working parents, the study notes, since they “are more likely to make sacrifices to their food intake and dietary choices in order to provide for their children.”
The analysis presents one straightforward way to improve people’s economic well being in the absence of major changes to social safety-net programs. According to William Rodgers III, author of the report, “modest increases in the minimum wage…will lead to parents being healthier, and hence more productive in the workplace.” And when the rest of the family has adequate nutrition, a single mom maybe has some extra juice left over at the end of the day to, say, read to her kids, or plan finances for college. In the long run, Rodgers adds, “healthier kids today means they can learn and study better, and achieve higher levels in school, and thus when they proceed to the workplace, they’ll even be more productive.” So the raise could become an investment in a more productive workforce, which is crucial in an era of heightened economic volatility.