Food Insecurity and Marital Status

So far, in our blog series on the Gunderson and Ziliak Future of Children research report, we’ve outlined how 1 in 5 children in America are food insecure and how there are more reasons for this besides low household income. For example, caregivers’ mental and physical health, as well as child care arrangements, are contributing factors. Another piece of the puzzle is family structure.

I’ll start with some basic statistics. This table from shows the differences in the percentage of food-insecure households with children by family structure in 2011. Without taking any other contributing factors into account, female-headed households with no spouse present are more than twice as likely to be food-insecure than households headed by married couples (40 vs. 15 percent). Households headed by a father with no spouse present have a 28% prevalence of food insecurity, in between married couples and single mothers.

These differences aren’t surprising. But there’s more to the story.

Gunderson and Ziliak summarize several studies that give us clues about how marital status is related to food insecurity. For example, Balistreri found that children living with a single parent or with an unmarried parent in a more complex family (such as when the mother is cohabiting with a partner and there’s also a grandparent in the household) are at greater risk of food insecurity than children living with two biological parents or in a stepfamily. Also, Neeraj Kaushal and colleagues found that children living with their biological parents, whether married or cohabiting, have a lower risk of food insecurity. In contrast, Miller and colleagues found no substantive differences across family types after controlling for socioeconomic status and demographic characteristics. Regarding unmarried families, Nepomnyaschy and colleagues have shown that nonresident fathers’ consistent support, whether in cash or in kind, is associated with lower food insecurity; interestingly, inconsistent support was worse than no support at all.

Based on these findings, it’s important not to jump to conclusions about marital status and food insecurity. While married-couple households seem to be at least risk, this doesn’t mean a marriage certificate solves food insecurity, and that we should rush people into marriage. Family complexity, socioeconomic status, and nonresident fathers’ support also play a contributing role.

The Fragile Families Study and the work of Sara McLanahan, editor-in-chief of the Future of Children offer potential policy implications. In a recent article about unmarried parents, McLanahan and Jencks concluded that to prevent the negative outcomes associated with having children outside of marriage, women with lower socioeconomic status can be encouraged to postpone having children, giving them time to mature and increase their education and earnings. By extension, since women aren’t likely to marry men with poor earning capacity, men need to increase their capacity to provide for a family. Initiatives such as the promotion of effective birth control and education access seem promising. For currently unmarried families, Nepomnyaschy’s article underscores the importance of consistent child support in reducing the risk of childhood food insecurity.