The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 15, 2016

How coping with food insecurity can lead to further instability

December 15, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

To what lengths do struggling families go to put food on the table? And how could those efforts affect them in the future?

One teen girl from rural North Carolina told Urban Institute researchers during a 2015 focus group that her family engaged in a regular rotation of trade-offs between food and other basic household expenses: “We would have one thing off a week—cable, heat, power.”

This family isn’t alone. Our research in low-income communities around the country demonstrated how families manage material hardship and how teens in those families often help acquire and manage food and other resources. 

But what if the coping mechanisms for dealing with food insecurity and financial stress introduce further instability in vulnerable families? In “Stabilizing Children’s Lives: Insights for Research and Action,” Gina Adams and colleagues explain why we should be concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of instability on households with children and why we need to better understand how instability plays out in children’s lives.  

The destabilizing effects of coping with food insecurity

One area that needs further exploration is how juggling competing demands and hardship—a mark of the resilience of many low-income families—can exacerbate instability. Strategies families use to address food insecurity can contribute to a complex chain of events and consequences that can further undermine well-being. 

A 2014 Feeding America study of clients seeking assistance from food pantries and other feeding programs found that many vulnerable households make trade-offs between basic needs to afford food: 69 percent reported choosing between paying for food and paying for utilities, 66 percent reported choosing between food and medical care, and 57 percent reported trading off between housing and food costs.

Families who delay utility or rent payments to afford food may face involuntary shutoff of power or jeopardize their living arrangements; those who choose between buying groceries and buying medicine or seeing the doctor or dentist may undermine their health.

A 2014 study found that one in three chronically ill patients—those living with illnesses like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease—report being unable to afford both food and medications and may underuse prescriptions given by health care providers.  

Moreover, for many health conditions, food is medicine; regularly eating well is a key part of managing many diet-sensitive diseases like diabetes and hypertension. When households face tough choices between basic needs, a patient may enter the physician’s office with poorly controlled diabetes and be labeled “noncompliant.” But research shows that food insecurity and larger financial instability may play a key role in why some patients struggle to manage chronic illness.

What these trade-offs mean for young people

The teens we talked to seek both formal and informal ways of making money to contribute to family budgets, they shop for the cheapest food options at the grocery store, and they adhere to planned schedules for eating from the family pantry to conserve resources. They also shield younger siblings from scarce food resources, sometimes forgoing a meal so their younger brother or sister has enough to eat.

Some also engage in risky behaviors to manage their hunger. While not necessarily widespread, some teens deliberately fail a class to access regular meals during summer school, other teens get arrested for the food and housing jail provides, and vulnerable teen girls engage in transactional “dating” with older men to get food for themselves and their families. 

When we talk about food insecurity or other forms of material hardship, we often focus on the lack of resources, but don’t take into account the ways coping strategies may undermine the goals our society prioritizes: education, work, health, and civic engagement. 

When families face seemingly impossible choices, their coping strategies can compound the risk for their future well-being. We need to better understand how these strategies can create even more instability so we can prevent worrisome outcomes.  

Low-income residents select free pastries at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey on August 28, 2015 in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

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