The possibility of senior citizens in the U.S. not having enough to eat is a developing crisis that will probably lead to new public health challenges, says a University of Illinois economist who studies the effectiveness of food assistance programs on public health.
More than one in seven seniors faced the threat of hunger in 2010, according to research by Craig Gundersen, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics.
This is up significantly from 2005, when one in nine seniors went hungry.
“The Great Recession has caused extreme hardship on many families in the U.S., and senior citizens are no exception,” said Gundersen, who also is the executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory at Illinois.
“This report demonstrates that our seniors may face more challenges than initially thought.”
From 2001 to 2010, the number of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger has increased by 78 percent, according to the study, co-authored with James Ziliak.
Since the onset of the recession in 2007, the number of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger has increased by 34 percent.
“For the entire population, there has been an increase in the threat of hunger, and we see this in the senior population as well,” Gundersen said.
“In the full population, there was a marked increase in food insecurity from 2007 to 2008, which largely stayed the same through 2010. But what makes seniors a bit more unique, though, is that from 2009 to 2010, for the general population and for children, there was a very slight decrease in food insecurity — nothing substantively large — but it was still a statistically significant decline. By contrast, there was an increase among seniors.”
According to the research, which used national and state-level data from the Current Population Survey, the increases were greatest among the near-poor, whites, widows, non-metro residents, the retired, women and households with no grandchildren present.
“Out of those seniors who face the threat of hunger, the majority have incomes above the poverty line and are white,” Gundersen said.
But the news isn’t comforting if you’re a non-white senior, either.
“Seniors living in states in the South and Southwest; those who are racial or ethnic minorities; those with lower incomes; and those ages 60 to 69 are also more likely to be threatened by hunger,” Gundersen said.
The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 after lasting 18 months, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“The overall increase in hunger both among the general population and among seniors is predominantly due to the Great Recession, which put more people into poverty and created higher unemployment,” Gundersen said. “It’s the primary culprit for driving up the food insecurity rates.”
Typically, when economies begin to pick up after a recession, older adults often struggle the most to find work, Gundersen says.
“After the Great Recession ended, we had a large group of older Americans age 60 to 65 who wanted to be in the workforce but they couldn’t because jobs weren’t as plentiful for them,” he said.
Since previous research has shown that food insecurity is linked to a variety of poor nutritional and health problems for seniors, the study suggests that a good way to spur growth in health care expenditures on older Americans is to solve the food insecurity problem, Gundersen says.
“From my perspective, food insecurity is one of the leading if not the leading nutritional public health issues in the U.S. today,” Gundersen said.
“Millions of Americans are food insecure, and millions of seniors are food insecure. We should be concerned when millions of our seniors are going hungry, and the fact that there are serious health consequences associated with that. Any sort of comprehensive effort to decrease health care costs in the U.S. should also incorporate some discussion of how to decrease food insecurity.”
Source: University of Illinois