Americans struggle to feed their families

Canned food sits on the shelf at the San Francisco Food Bank in San Francisco, Calif. New data from Gallup shows that 25 percent of Mississippi residents have struggled to feed their families at some point over the last 12 months. On average, 18 percent of respondents in the U.S. say they lacked money for food.

Tens of millions of Americans feed their families with help from food stamps and subsidized school lunches. A new report from Gallup shows that nearly 20 percent of Americans have struggled this year to pay for food.

Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and joins us for our weekly Attitude Check. He says Gallup surveys 1,000 Americans every day, and one of the daily questions is: "Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?"

Newport says Mississippi has the highest percentage of residents -- 25 percent -- who responded YES to that question, but he points to the entire South as a region that has struggled with money for food.   

North Dakota had the fewest YES responses, with only 9.6 percent of respondents saying they had lacked money to buy food. Newport says, "We've all seen the pictures of the huge oil and gas boom repurcussions going on up in North Dakota. Well, it certainly means there are fewer people struggling to buy food."

Newport says this summer's drought and the resulting rise in food prices will likely make it even tougher for residents in the South.

Tess Vigeland: We spend a lot of time talking about how the economy affects all Americans. It's been a rough few years, and families young and old often struggle with the decision of whether or not to ask for help from the government.

Right now, tens of millions of people rely on food stamps and school lunch programs, and a new survey out from Gallup shows some 20 percent of the country has struggled at some point this year to put food on the table.

Joining us to talk about this survey is Frank Newport. He's the editor-in-chief at Gallup, and he's here for our regular Attitude Check -- to learn what Americans really think about things. Good to talk to you again, Frank.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Vigeland: So talk to us about the question the interviewers asked here about buying food, and what the response was.

Newport: It's a fascinating question, and one that we have asked in countries around the world, and we track it daily here in the U.S. Basically, we ask respondents amongst other questions: Has there been one time in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you or your family need? And overall, 18 percent of Americans so far this year -- the first half of the year -- said yes, there has been at least one time. So a lot of Americans are out there struggling out there across this country.

Vigeland: The report also does point out some pretty stark regional differences -- see the map below -- but where are folks struggling the most?

Newport: If you look at the map, it's right across the southern tier of the U.S. The single state where it's highest is Mississippi; 25 percent, that is one out of four Mississippi residents tell us that over the last year there's been one occasion when they struggled to have enough money to buy food. Following that are Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Nevada. Those states that I mentioned, all of those, have above 20 percent who say they've struggled to be able to buy food.

Vigeland: Anywhere in the country where it's not an issue?

Newport: Well you know, I keep mentioning this state, and it's North Dakota. A lot of indices in consumer confidence, job creation -- we all know, you've seen the pictures of all the huge oil and gas boom repercussions going on in North Dakota, well it certainly means that there are fewer people struggling to buy food. It's 10 percent in North Dakota. The other states where it's quite low are up there around North Dakota, kind of that upper Midwest -- South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana.

Vigeland: You know, I'm curious, just if you could lift the curtain for us on something: When pollsters have to ask this question of the people that they're calling up, what's it like for them to get the answer of 'yes, I have had trouble putting food on the table'?

Newport: Well, it can certainly be sad for an interviewer, because basically they're hearing the respondent on the other end of the phone telling them that things are not going right at all in their life. And this isn't the only question that we ask along these lines; we ask: Do you have medical problems or currently have medical problems? Of course, a lot of people are suffering in that dimension as well.

But you know, our interviewers probably have the biggest problems, or reactions, when we ask political questions, because that's where -- instead of just being sad -- the respondents come back with very strong emotions on both sides of it, both sides of the equation. And our interviewers have to say, 'All right, all right, I've got your answer down. Time to go on to the next question.'

Vigeland: Your data also suggests that this issue of hunger is going to get worse later this year. Why is that?

Newport: Well the drought, as we know, has caused problems in the farming and agriculture of this country, even including things like not enough water in the Mississippi for barges full of food to go down the river. So the anticipation is by experts that the price of food is going to go up, not down into the fall and into the winter. And of course if that's the case, it's likely we'll have more Americans who say, 'I just don't have enough money to buy food.'

Vigeland: Frank Newport is the editor-in-chief at Gallup, and he's been joining us for our weekly Attitude Check. Frank, thanks so much.

Newport: Thank you.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.

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