Why We Should Stop Blaming Poverty and Parents for Hungry Kids

Why We Should Stop Blaming Poverty and Parents for Hungry Kids

Why you should care

Because maybe food stamps aren’t the answer to feeding hungry children.

Nothing tugs at our collective heartstrings more than hungry kids. Rightfully so. It’s hard enough to stay afloat when you’re full-size, but little people are at a gross disadvantage when it comes to the maddeningly not-basic basics of food and housing. But it may be time to stop blaming the crushing social woe of poverty for causing the crushing social woe of hungry American kids — a whopping 1 in 5. New research shows:

The biggest threat to full bellies is unstable mental and physical health.

Lenna Nepomnyaschy, a professor at Rutgers University School of Social Work and author of a number of recent studies on this topic, says that financial resources, like family income and assets, tell “the simple story.” The more complicated story is instability. Why? When a family is on edge, it doesn’t take much to go over. A parent might be able to pay all the bills when they’re at 100 percent, but any turbulence can send them in a downward spiral. Thus, the factors of mental and physical health are critical. Managing a strict budget is complex and exhausting, so parents who are distracted or sad or sick just don’t have the capacity.

You won’t be surprised that kids of single moms are more than twice as likely to be food-insecure than those of married couples. But even if the two biological (but unmarried) parents are cohabiting or a parent is remarried or a relative is living in the house, there is still a higher chance the kids will go hungry. It seems to defy logic, but new relationships, additional family members and moving households all make everyday life messy. It’s this kind of complication, says Nepomnyaschy, that ups the chance of having hungry kids. This is sobering news, as the traditional structure of the American family fades and the mixed model takes its place.

“At the end of the day, it’s about improving not just the amount of resources but types, and making them easy for families to access,” Nepomnyaschy says. Food stamps are straightforward. Mental health is not. It’s a lot easier to do something about a money problem, says Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks. But getting married isn’t necessarily the answer. That said, a happy family just might be. Daniel Miller, an assistant professor at Boston University who studies child food issues, says that policy tends to be “a blunt instrument,” and that “the best response is not so much about food, but about family support.”

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