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More Americans Struggle to Afford Food

More Americans Struggle to Afford Food

Americans' overall access to basic needs is close to record-low

by Alyssa Davis

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More Americans are struggling to afford food -- nearly as many as did during the recent recession. The 20.0% who reported in August that they have, at times, lacked enough money to buy the food that they or their families needed during the past year, is up from 17.7% in June, and is the highest percentage recorded since October 2011. The percentage who struggle to afford food now is close to the peak of 20.4% measured in November 2008, as the global economic crisis unfolded.

Percentage of Americans Who Struggled to Afford Food

Americans' ability to consistently afford food has not yet recovered to the prerecession levels seen in January through April 2008, when less than 17% in the U.S. reported that they had problems affording food in the past year.

This is only the third time in 68 successive months of Gallup and Healthways' tracking, which began in January 2008, that at least 20% of Americans said they struggled to afford food in the past year.

Americans' Access to Basic Needs Hovers Near Record-Low

Americans remain as likely to have access to basic necessities in general now as they were in October 2011, when it was at its lowest point. The Basic Access Index, which includes 13 questions about topics including Americans' ability to afford food, housing, and healthcare, was 81.4 in August, on par with the all-time low of 81.2 recorded in October 2011.

The Basic Access Index peaked at 84.1 in September and October 2008 at the start of the economic crisis. It steadily declined until March 2009 and has never recovered to prerecession levels, defined as at least 83.0.

U.S. Basic Access Index, by Month

The percentage of Americans who say they have a personal doctor or health insurance has declined the most in August compared with September 2008, when the overall index was at its high point. Americans' perceptions that their city or area is getting better as a place to live have improved the most since that time, followed by their access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

(For complete results for all items included in the Basic Access Index for August 2013 compared with September 2008, see page 2.)


One in five Americans reported in August that they did not have enough money to buy the food that they or their family needed in the past year, more than said so earlier this year and near highs seen since 2008. Similarly, Americans' overall access to basic necessities has not recovered to the levels seen before the economic crisis. These findings suggest that the economic recovery may be disproportionately benefitting upper-income Americans rather than those who are struggling to fulfill their basic needs.

Stagnant wages are one possible reason why Americans' ability to afford food and other basic needs has not improved since the recession. According to an August 2013 Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data, "the average hourly pay for a nongovernment, non-supervisory worker, adjusted for price increases, declined to $8.77 [in July 2013] from $8.85 at the end of the recession in June 2009." Depressed wages are likely negatively affecting the economic recovery by reducing consumer spending, but another serious and costly implication may be that fewer Americans are able to consistently afford food and meet other basic needs.

Increasing wages alone, however, is not enough to significantly increase the percentage of Americans who have the ability to afford food. Federal government programs also play a role in addressing this issue. As food stamp (SNAP) enrollment increases, Republicans in Congress are proposing substantial cuts and reforms to the program, while Democrats are resisting such reductions. Regardless, food stamp benefits are set to be reduced in November after a provision of the 2009 fiscal stimulus program expires. Therefore, it is possible that even more Americans may struggle to afford food in the immediate future.

About the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index tracks well-being in the U.S. and provides best-in-class solutions for a healthier world. To learn more, please visit

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey Aug. 1-31, 2013, with a random sample of 15,729 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Monthly samples through 2012 were comprised of 28,000-30,000 respondents per month, while 2013 monthly samples were about half that size.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error for any given month in 2008-2012 is ±0.6 percentage points. The margin of error for any given month in 2013 is ±0.8 percentage points

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by region. Landline and cellphone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

Basic Access Index Items: September 2008 vs. August 2013

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