Hunger Is a Racial Equity Issue
Throughout history, people of color in the United States have experienced discrimination and maltreatment when it comes to education, employment, housing, healthcare, and mass incarceration, among others. It is through these and other systems that structural racism is maintained as a result of historical actions that continue to be felt today. Because of this, these marginalized communities have dealt with poverty and food insecurity at a much higher rate than white people. In fact, Black people are two times more likely to experience poverty than the overall population of the United States, and the percentage only increases for women of color.
Following the American Civil War, former slaves were revoked of their initial promise of land by President Andrew Johnson and instead had to continue working for their former owners due to President Johnson’s land policies. Though he had promised 40 acres of land to each former slave who fought in the civil war, he reversed this promise in 1865 by ordering all land under federal control be returned to its previous owners - which were the white slaveowners. As a result, 4 million African Americans were left without land, leaving them no choice but to rent the farmland from their previous masters. This lack of opportunity in owning property continues to manifest itself in different ways including redlining (the Federal Housing Administration’s decision to not insure mortgages for Black neighborhoods) resulting from the National Housing Act of 1934.
The housing shortage during the Great Depression led the government to create housing programs aimed to create segregated housing for middle-class Americans with white families occupying new homes and apartments in the newly developed suburbs, while Black families were regulated to urban high-rises often much farther from work. The problem, however, was that federal housing was segregated into exclusively white or exclusively Black housing that was not created equal. The Federal Housing Administration did not allow federal housing buildings for Blacks in a white neighborhood, claiming property values of homes would decline but due to the lack of housing options, Black individuals would actually want to pay more than white individuals if given the opportunity to purchase a house.
On top of that, the FHA put in guidelines that Black individuals and families could not get a mortgage no matter the area of town they were trying to live in. And just to make it a little bit harder, the FHA prohibited the building of apartment complexes and multifamily homes in white neighborhoods to avoid lower income citizens being able to afford living there which were predominately people of color. This practice took place across many major cities across the United States including Miami, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, and more during the mid 20th century, and the effects of these laws can still be felt today.
Even though northern states were on the side to abolish slavery, between 1780 and 1862 penal codes were in place that led to Black individuals being incarcerated in large numbers. Today, over-policing and longer sentences perpetuate mass incarceration, which is the reality or risk of large numbers of people being jailed. In fact, the United States has a disproportionate number of people incarcerated.
The general population of the U.S. is 5% of that of the world, yet we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated individuals. On average, Black men receive about 20 percent longer prison sentences than white men who were involved in similar crimes.
Children are more likely to face difficulties related to school, such as cognitive delays, if their parents have been incarcerated, the rate of which has increased since the 1980s. Poverty and hunger can perpetuate for generations when children encounter obstacles that pull them away from succeeding in school, which in turn will make it harder to find a quality job.
Soon after the Civil War, in the late 1870s, Jim Crow laws enacted segregation in various public places, including schools, allowing white schools to receive more financial support and mandating Black children went to school to ultimately take on the jobs their parents had in areas such as service jobs including domestic work and farm labor. It was not until 1954 and the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education that the Supreme Court would rule segregation unconstitutional; yet, inequalities still persist in education for Black students to this day.
EDUCATION SHOULD SET UP STUDENTS FOR SUCCESS BUT MANY FACE EXPERIENCES THAT CAN HARM THEIR FUTURE
Even though Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that the idea of “Separate but equal” as unconstitutional, schools are still - and sometimes more often today than in the past - segregated. Even before kindergarten Black children endure more disadvantageous experiences than their white classmates, including going through the incarceration or death of a parent, which negatively impacts the chances they will attend higher education. Black children are also five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school compared to white children.
While historically Black colleges do exist, some, such as Morehouse College and Spelman College, were originally created to ultimately prohibit Black individuals from rising in social status by keeping them in the working class by awarding students certificates instead of diplomas. On the other hand, the Rockefellers, who created the previously mentioned institutions, also took part in the establishment of the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. This school was created with the aim of educating white people to become managers, demonstrating the difference in social status between each of these racial groups and how it was perpetuated.
Today, Black students face challenges getting accepted to colleges because rather than getting involved in extracurricular activities, they may need to spend their time outside of class holding a job to support their family. Compared to other students who earn high scores on standardized tests by paying for a tutor, Black students unable to do so may appear to be a poor candidate in the eyes of admissions counselors. In total, Black and Latino students make up 36% of the college-age population - yet, only 19% of the students attending selective public colleges identify as Black and Latino.
In college, meal plans are available to students living on campus, but students can only sign up if they are able to afford it - if not, many students go hungry on campus. The lack of access to on-campus food for certain groups inspired about 25 students in the National Action Network Spelhouse Collegiate Chapter enrolled at the aforementioned historically Black colleges of Spelman College and Morehouse College, and they successfully completed a two week hunger strike in 2017. Their initiative brought awareness to food insecurity and food waste at colleges, emphasizing that when students do not use their meals each week they go uneaten. They aimed to change that with programs where uneaten meals were not lost, but instead could be taken by students that needed them. Ultimately, for the remainder of the fall semester, Spelman College President Dr. Campbell announced the institution would provide 2,000 meals to students not living on campus and 7,000 meals during the coming spring semester, with more efforts in development.
When students are unable to eat, they may experience trouble completing their education. Nearly 30% of students at four-year colleges reported food insecurity at some point during their college career, and the percentage is even higher for marginalized communities.
According to a survey led by Heather Melcher of the Office of Institutional Analytics at the University of New Mexico, 44% of Black students experienced food insecurity, second only to 51.8% of American Indian students who experienced food insecurity in 2021. This survey also showed that students who were food insecure at the start of their term have a higher chance of dropping out of school before the next semester. Only 76.5% of Black students returned for the spring 2021 semester if they were food insecure in the Fall of 2020.
DIFFERENCES IN EMPLOYMENT, INCOME, AND RETIREMENT CAN IMPACT FOOD SECURITY
Of course, stemming from educational opportunities is employment, including internships. Compared to other racial groups, Black students held more unpaid internships and more unpaid intern roles than they did paid roles. Facing a similar situation are Hispanic and Latino students who may not have any internship experience by the time they graduate. Additionally, men were more likely than women to hold paid internships, and first-generation college students (those whose parents did not receive a higher education) were less likely to hold a paid internship role than students with family that attended college. Gaining work experience through roles such as internships is crucial for the workforce, so students not able to obtain the same work will be disadvantaged in the workforce.
"It really is not surprising when you consider the drivers of food insecurity: Income, employment. It’s also an accumulation of disadvantages that happens. I don’t think people always recognize that accumulation—how disadvantages can accumulate over generations and cause those disparities in wealth."
- Associate Professor Odoms-Young, Northern Illinois University
Black individuals consistently have a higher unemployment rate than white individuals, especially in metro areas that have large Black populations, such as Washington, D.C. where the unemployment rate for Black people is six times higher than white people. This is not a new issue. Since 1972, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data, the unemployment rate has frequently been at least two times higher for Black individuals than for white individuals. Even though anti-discrimination laws were enforced in the 1970s and led to smaller gaps in the workforce, these laws are not enforced well at the state level and small employers (15 or fewer employees) do not need to follow such civil rights laws, perpetuating discrimination against Black individuals.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted many jobs and caused unemployment rates to rise dramatically for Black women (14%) and Latinas (15.3%). Yet, women of color were a large number of essential workers. In fact, between February 2020 - October 2020, 8 million jobs held by women had been lost. This alone was 55% of job losses at the time, and women clearly took a hit. During COVID, losing work or experiencing a decrease in hours or pay was common, impacting 72% of Latinas and less than 4 in 10 are comfortable with what their pay will be in the near future. Even though there have been improvements in the unemployment rate, Black women and Latinas still have unemployment rates much higher than before the pandemic started.
In 2021, the average U.S. household income was approximately $70,700, lower than the average household income for white families at $77,999. That average pales in comparison for African American families who bring home approximately $48,297, Hispanic families who earn about $57,981, and Native American families who earn around $40,000*.
*statistic is based on Native American households that don’t live on reservations.
Latinas earn only slightly more than half of what white non-Hispanic men earn (55 cents on average for every dollar; however, in some places such as California, this number may be as low as 41 cents for every dollar) and are often employed in service jobs that do not have many benefits.
Likewise, Black women have often been employed in domestic service, one of the few fields that many were able to work in following the migration to the northern states in the U.S. in the 1900s. These low-wage jobs included working in the homes of white families. Since they were expected to hold jobs, rather than being a stay-at-home parent, Black women often were unable to receive financial assistance until the 1960s when the Kennedy/Johnson Administration declared a “war” on poverty. Therefore, the only choice they had, given the lack of employment options and assistance, was to work low-paying jobs.
Today, the same pattern still exists. Black adult women are 1.8 times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Black women’s employment has recovered the least among major race and ethnicity groups, with 2.6% fewer adult Black women employed in January 2022 than February 2020. Compared to women of other races, Black women are more likely to hold the role of head of household or breadwinner. This makes their financial situation even more challenging because low-paying jobs make it difficult to support their family if they do not have the support from other adults of various generations in the family working their own jobs, too. Mississippi is not the only state without an equal pay law on the books. Other states that also have a large Black population often lack livable wages and protections that would benefit employees, as well. For example, if women become pregnant, they may not be able to take advantage of parental leave and other benefits that would allow them to continue to fulfill the responsibilities of their role and maintain their job.
"Many of us are always one paycheck away from being evicted, being in the street, not having food,” she says. “I have no money saved. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my bills. I’m just hoping and praying."
- Ms. Dorothy, a restaurant server of over 40 years from Mississippi, told Oxfam America
Overall, women make up a large portion (64%) of individuals that work in low-paying jobs and may not have access to paid family leave or medical leave, or even consistent schedules, which increases the likelihood of facing hunger. Furthermore, women holding full-time jobs also differ in their income based on race, with non-Hispanic white women making 79 cents and Black women making just 63 cents compared to every dollar non-Hispanic white men earn, demonstrating how both race and gender play a role in income. While this may not seem like such a big difference at first glance, it adds up over time making saving and spending money more challenging.
The Racial Wage Gap
Click on a state to see its ranking.
For every dollar a white employee earns, the % demonstrates how many cents Black employees earn. For example, the wage gap is highest in D.C., with Wyoming being the only state that pays Black employees more than white employees.
After years of putting in hard work, everyone looks forward to retirement, however, Latino (64%) and Black (53%) communities do not have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans (compared to white employees at 42%), which are generally more affordable or have no cost.
Similarly, people of color often have much less saved for retirement than white people and are more likely to experience hunger in old age. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation by nearly 60 percent compared to rates from before the pandemic, especially for Black and Hispanic older adults who already had higher rates than older white adults. At times, elderly Black individuals had a food insecurity rate as high as nearly 29%, and elderly Hispanic adults had a rate as high as 26% during the early months of the pandemic.
Ultimately, the food insecurity rate for older adults rose to 13.5% in 2020, a much higher number than 8.5% from 2018.
PREVIOUSLY INCARCERATED INDIVIDUALS FACE HUNGER AND OBSTACLES WHILE RETURNING TO SOCIETY THAT PERPETUATES POVERTY
For individuals recently released from incarceration, health issues are among the multitude of hurdles they may face especially as their diet is likely not as nutritious as it should be, depending on what is provided. This does not change, however, once people are released as they may not be able to receive SNAP benefits due to some states requiring a drug test to be eligible or a two-year time span where formerly incarcerated individuals are unable to receive benefits.
Policies may prohibit them from becoming employed and licensing boards can refuse someone a license based on past behavior, which hurts individuals trying to work in fields like healthcare and human services, even though their personal experiences may be an asset in the role. Obtaining a job helps people stay out of prison, but many employers continue to discriminate against formerly incarcerated individuals despite saying otherwise. Considering five times more Black individuals are imprisoned than white people, the unemployment rates of previously incarcerated Black men and women are much higher than that of white individuals.
A study from 2019 found that 20% of previously incarcerated individuals experienced food insecurity. Given this rate is already double the overall population’s rate of food insecurity, it is astounding to know that they found Black individuals and women who had at one point been imprisoned were even more likely to have faced hunger.
Other struggles faced by recently incarcerated individuals include difficulty obtaining a job and finding a place to live, which only makes obtaining food more challenging. Ultimately, when parents are incarcerated, their children are at risk of facing health issues including depression, anxiety, and struggling in school. Success in school is essential for entering the workforce, but when people are not able to find a job, this often leads to children growing up in a poverty cycle and struggling to put food on the table for years to come.
CHILDREN’S EXPERIENCES WITH HUNGER PROVIDE INSIGHT INTO FOOD DESERTS AND OBESITY
As many as 13 million children faced hunger in 2020 and 2021, a major increase compared to the 11 million food insecure children in 2019. For at least the last 15 years, the food insecurity rate for children has been higher than the overall hunger rate.
In general, women with children will provide nutritious foods for their kids, but not for themselves if they face food insecurity. While this puts women at risk for obesity, programs such as SNAP and WIC (Women, Infants, Children) enable mothers to avoid mental and physical health issues, such as maternal depression, which can both lead to and be an effect of food insecurity. Men are not as likely to experience obesity due to food insecurity.
Grocery shopping is just one of the many necessary tasks of being a parent, but it can be complicated and time consuming to shop for food when neighborhoods do not have grocery stores, especially when less than a quarter of African Americans do not have a car. This issue is also faced by Latinos and Asian Americans as 17% and 13%, respectively, also lack a car.
Few (8%) African Americans have grocery stores in their census area compared to 31% of white individuals. Native American communities on Tribal reservations face similar issues, with the average resident having to drive approximately 3 hours one-way for a trip to the grocery store. Not only is it challenging to travel to grocery stores, these grocery stores often lack healthy products. Areas that lack healthy and affordable options for grocery stores are deemed food deserts and are most often low-income areas.
When families have a low income, they need to stretch their dollar and therefore may choose to buy cheaper foods, which are oftentimes also foods high in calories. Additionally, buying healthy foods is not easy when healthy foods are not available nearby or are too expensive, which increases the risk of obesity. Hispanic children are slightly more likely to be overweight or obese (38.2%) than Black children (35.9%) and white children (29.3%).
Food deserts are linked to the lack of interest from supermarket chains to have locations in low-income areas, sometimes referred to as “supermarket redlining.” While having access to nutritious foods and jobs are critical to preventing hunger, housing is another necessity for families. Unfortunately, redlining for housing is also very common.
LONG LASTING HOUSING ISSUES CAN LEAD TO HUNGER
People of color have faced obstacles in owning property for a long time. This began following the Civil War when only 30,000 Black individuals owned property compared to the 4 million that did not as a result of President Johnson choosing to not carry out his promise of allowing former slaves who fought in the war to get 40 acres of land, referred to as “40 Acres and a Mule.” Instead, the land was returned to the white individuals who had owned the slaves, and thus many Black families and individuals had to purchase or work the land of their former slave owners*.
Since banking was an issue at the time, paying rent in cash was not possible; so Black individuals had to provide the crops from their portion of the land to their previous owner. This practice is also known as sharecropping. To rub salt in the wound, Black individuals also had to purchase seed and other materials to grow the crops exclusively from their previous owners. The former slave owners would sell those supplies at high prices and then purchase the actual crops at low prices leaving very little margin for the Black individuals working the land. Even though slavery had ended by law, these circumstances were not much different given the mandatory connection to their previous owner. This ultimately went on for multiple generations and perpetuated the Black families’ struggle to escape poverty and hunger.
Today, a much larger portion of white adults own homes than Black people (nearly 74% versus 45%) because white individuals may be more likely to have family members that can support them financially. Receiving this type of help allows people to have lower interest rates, which ultimately means they do not pay as much to own the home.
This relates to the long-lasting historical struggles the Black community faced in obtaining property, including redlining, which came about due to the National Housing Act of 1934. This meant they were denied bank loans or could only get loans with high rates. Furthermore, white individuals had the ability to buy homes in Black neighborhoods and charge Black families wanting to buy the home two or three times as much money as they paid. Even though the Fair Housing Act from 1968 forbids identity-based (including race) discrimination, it still occurs as other policies target people of color such as not allowing those with criminal records to rent.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already existing inequalities. For renters, families unable to pay housing costs, such as rent, were at risk of being evicted. To make matters worse, once a renter has been evicted, it goes on your background check, therefore making it extremely difficult to be approved for another rental home. This makes finding another place more challenging and contributes to families facing poverty over multiple generations. Furthermore, since many people of color lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, the lack of income meant it was even harder to pay for the already expensive costs of living. As a result of systemic racism, people of color, especially Black individuals, are at risk of becoming homeless.
Facing eviction puts families at risk of experiencing food insecurity as well as other obstacles, such as health issues. When a family or individual faces homelessness, it may be challenging to obtain basic necessities including food, because sharing food in public and panhandling are banned. These laws are part of anti-homeless legislation, of which 90% of cities have adopted. Ultimately, these laws do not fix the issue of homelessness, but instead, force poverty to continue.
FOOD ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS SUPPORT THOSE IN NEED, BUT MAY NOT BE REACHING EVERYONE THAT WOULD BENEFIT
Despite the hardships many face, federal food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enable people to eat better and come out of poverty by providing financial support. However, there is a need for SNAP benefits to be increased, which would help all recipients.
Crucial to SNAP’s feasibility was Representative George Thomas Leland, who created the Mickey Leland Childhood Hunger Relief Act and took part in founding the House Select Committee on Hunger.
It is important to note that while the COVID-19 pandemic increased food insecurity for all races, the Black and Latino communities were especially impacted. In March 2021, Black and Latino adults were still over two times more likely to experience food insecurity than white adults. Additionally, of the ten counties facing the highest hunger rates, eight have a population with a majority of Black individuals.
Unfortunately, out of the Latino families who qualify financially for SNAP, only 39% are part of the program. USDA data shows that more than 4 million Latinos are eligible, yet remain unenrolled, in SNAP. Many cite the lack of information about the application process or concerns about immigration issues as barriers to receiving SNAP benefits. The 39% percent pales in comparison to the 65% of Black individuals and 74% of white people that do. However, beginning October 1, 2021, SNAP benefits increased thanks to the Biden Administration, with each state’s increase being different amounts. While this news greatly impacts those who already receive SNAP, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack states this will not only help the individuals in need, but also create jobs, there is the issue of eligibility.
“Ensuring low-income families have access to a healthy diet helps prevent disease, supports children in the classroom, reduces health-care costs and more,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “And the additional money families will spend on groceries helps grow the food economy, creating thousands of new jobs along the way.”
To be eligible for the program, individuals still need to meet strict income limits depending on the number of household members and work requirements.
The SNAP program enables mothers to have better health, including being less likely to experience maternal depression. On top of that, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program works to support low-income women who are currently or were recently pregnant, as well as their children. WIC provides formula, nutritious foods, information on healthy eating, and access to healthcare for eligible women. WIC is available in each state in the United States, as well as in 33 Indian Tribal Organizations, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. One important figure in the creation of WIC was Honorable Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress back in 1968. Shirley Chisholm, nicknamed “Fighting Shirley”, was a major advocate for minorities and underprivileged groups during her time as a Congresswoman. She was well-known for her initiation of expanding food assistance programs to each state.
"Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time"
- Honorable Shirley Chisholm aka Fighting Shirley, former congresswoman who was a major advocate for minorities and underprivileged groups.
THE INTERSECTIONALITY OF RACE, GENDER, AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Around the 1960s and into the 1970s, people had varying views on welfare, especially as the media played a big role in what people knew about it. The idea of “The Welfare Queen,” a mixed-race woman called Linda Taylor, came to prominence during a President Reagan campaign in 1976 where he told the story of a woman from the South Side of Chicago that was essentially scamming the government by using various names, addresses, and phone numbers so that she could receive support including food stamps. Furthermore, stereotypes were rampant with the ideas that women were unable to control their sexuality, and African Americans were deemed lazy.
Taylor allegedly received $150,000 or more from food stamps and Social Security by the mid-1970s, but in actuality, that number was probably around $40,000. It was also around this time, however, that women of color were finally able to receive benefits that would be of great support.
Professor Franklin D. Gilliam Jr, with the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains how people believed women, and especially women who are African American, were the largest demographic receiving welfare, when in reality, at the time this was published in the late 1990s, children were the largest group to receive such support. Additionally, the idea that Black individuals were getting more governmental assistance was incorrect as white individuals were and still are the larger group of people receiving support.
While food insecurity can, and does, affect essentially every demographic, certain groups, such as those who are low income, the Black community, women, and sexual minorities experience it disproportionately. Intersectionality, a term Kimberlé Crenshaw coined, describes the multiple identities a Black woman holds and the multiple forms of oppression they face. Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate and Professor of Law at the UCLA and Columbia Law School, earned her Juris Doctorate at Harvard and has served as a TED speaker, as well as written a multitude of articles and books on topics such as race, gender, intersectionality, and law.
“If you look at women of color, especially blacks and Latinas, their economic well-being has been most impacted by deindustrialization, and by the de-funding of the public sector,” said Crenshaw during an interview with Columbia Law School. “So if any group had a reason to respond to scapegoat politics, you would think it might be those workers who were subject to both racialized downward pressures and gendered downward pressures. Yet they were least likely to vote for someone not of the establishment.
One study found that, based on the National Health Interview Survey and National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than 1 in 3 individuals who identify as a sexual minority (non-heterosexual) Black women experienced food insecurity in the last year, slightly more than the 1 in 4 sexual minority white women experienced food insecurity in the past year.
Black adults that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to face food insecurity than those who don’t (37% versus 27%). Similarly, gender plays a role in who faces food insecurity. Black women are at a slightly higher risk of facing food insecurity than Black men, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ are at an even slightly higher risk than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts.
How To Support The Black Community
While the income of Black individuals is sixty percent of that of white Americans, the difference in wealth is even greater considering Black Americans have five percent of the wealth that white Americans do. Wealth is often derived from home equity, thus this can be traced back to the differences in housing for white and Black Americans since before the foundation of the United States and has continued until today. With the help of that generational wealth, white families were capable of sending their children to college and then passing on their wealth to their own kids.
To end hunger we need to start taking steps such as advocating for better wages. Not only do people need to support themselves, but also their families who may face hunger due to lacking another source of income. This includes those who were previously incarcerated and are returning to society. Additionally, it would be beneficial for more people to be eligible for federal programs, such as SNAP and WIC, so they can receive the support they need. Likewise, food banks need to be involved; they can work to support people of color by offering programs and classes regarding topics such as nutrition education and making sure there are options for food that are appropriate for different cultures.
There is a multitude of organizations doing great work that should be recognized for their effort, such as The Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First), Harlem Grown, Soul Fire Farm, EAT MOVE BeWELL, Swipe Out Hunger, and of course, Move For Hunger.
Check out other communities impacted by food insecurity, such as the LGBTQ+ community, Native American communities, and women, or learn about hunger, food waste, hunger and homelessness, redlining, how mass incarceration affects hunger, how the U.S. Census impacts hunger, and hunger in America.