• Research article
  • Open access
  • Published: 24 March 2021

Childhood memories of food and eating in lower-income families in the United States: a qualitative study

  • Nicklas Neuman   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7970-4753 1 ,
  • Karin Eli 2 , 3 &
  • Paulina Nowicka 1  

BMC Public Health volume  21 , Article number:  586 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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Childhood obesity prevention initiatives emphasize healthy eating within the family. However, family-focused initiatives may not benefit children whose families lack economic and/or social resources for home cooking and shared meals. The aim of this paper is to examine how adults talk about and make sense of childhood memories of food and eating, with particular attention to understandings of family life and socioeconomic conditions.

Semi-structured interviews with 49 adults in 16 families (22 parents and 27 grandparents of young children) were conducted in Oregon, United States. Most participants had experienced socioeconomically disadvantaged childhoods. The interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis, with a focus on the participants’ memories of food provision, preparation, and consumption in their childhood homes.

Two main themes were developed: (1) “Food and cohesion”, with the subthemes “Care and nurturance” and “Virtue transmission through shared meals”, and (2) “Food and adversity”, with the subthemes “Lack and neglect” and “Restriction and dominance”. The first theme captures idealized notions of food in the family, with participants recounting memories of care, nurturance, and culinary pleasure. The second theme captures how participants’ recollections of neglectful or rigidly restrictive feeding, as well as food discipline tipping over into dominance, upend such idealized images. Notably, the participants alternately identified poverty as a source of lack and as an instigator of creative and caring, if not always nutritionally-ideal, feeding. Thus, they remembered food they deemed unhealthy as a symbol of both neglect and care, depending on the context in which it was provided.


Childhood memories of food and eating may express both family cohesion and family adversity, and are deeply affected by experiences of socioeconomic disadvantage. The connection between memories of food the participants deemed unhealthy and memories of care suggests that, in the context of socioeconomic disadvantage, unhealthy feeding and eating may become a form of caregiving, with nutrition considered only one aspect of well-being. This has implications for public health initiatives directed at lower-income families.

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Public health initiatives concerning young children’s diets and the prevention of childhood obesity usually focus on the family context [ 1 , 2 ]. This is based on assumptions about the family as the main provider of food, parents’ function as role models and children’s food socialization at the dining table. Evidence supports family-based interventions [ 2 ], and family meal frequency is associated with beneficial psychosocial outcomes in youth [ 3 ] and nutritional health in children [ 4 ], although causality remains unclear. More broadly, from a social perspective, food and commensality (shared meals) have been identified as central in the regulation of eating, and, by extension, social communion and order [ 5 , 6 ]. In families and other constellations, social eating is also linked with self-reported pleasure and joy [ 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ].

However, eating in the family does not always have positive consequences. Anthropologist Richard Wilk has critiqued the gap between the ideology and the reality of the family meal [ 12 ]. In contrast to claims about family meals’ universal benefits, Wilk presents ethnographic documentation (his own and other researchers’) where the meal fostered conflict, dominance, shame and guilt, both among adults and in adults’ relationships to children [ 12 ]. Moreover, as other studies have shown, socioeconomic disadvantage may amplify the family meal as a site of potential adversity, given the competing demands of public health guidelines and families’ everyday lives. Low-wage jobs, food insecurity and social class hierarchies have been shown to impact on families’ food and eating patterns, and on feelings surrounding feeding and eating [ 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 ]. This suggests that, while lower-income parents seem quite aware of what constitutes nutritious feeding and idealized eating, they often experience difficulties in bridging between nutritional awareness and feeding practices. For example, in a recently published ethnography of low-income mothers in the United States, the “failure” of not having family meals was cited as a source of conflict, guilt, and shame in food insecure families [ 17 ]. For these mothers, tackling hunger while feeding their children healthily was an ongoing hardship, exacerbated by limited possibilities to provide meals that were nutritious, filling and affordable [ 18 ]. In another study from the United States, children and adolescents (12–19 years) of differing socioeconomic status spoke of unhealthy eating as physiologically negative and as a symbol of moral inferiority [ 19 ]. While adolescents of low socioeconomic status (SES) subscribed to these moralist views of food, their families could not practice healthy eating due to financial constraints, leading to feelings of embarrassment, shame, and moral failure [ 19 ]. Research from Australia has also attended to children’s experiences of food insecurity, demonstrating that children felt that hunger “marked” their bodies as vulnerable and “shameful”, and that families’ navigations of food insecurity often led to a co-existence of childhood obesity and hunger [ 20 ].

Although the literature sheds light on children’s and parents’ cross-sectional experiences of food insecurity, it remains unclear how adults remember experiences of food in their childhood homes, and whether these memories, with their potential for longitudinal implications, could enhance debates within public health and food policy. Therefore, in this paper, we ask: how do adults talk about and make sense of childhood memories of food and eating? Our aim is to examine this, with particular attention to participants’ understandings of how their childhood food experiences relate to family life and socioeconomic conditions. We explore memories of food through narratives told by adults of two generations, most of whom experienced socioeconomic hardship. By focusing on two generations of participants from lower-income families, our paper contributes an inter-generational dimension to the literature on the social stratification of food and eating.

The study was conducted in Eugene, Oregon, United States, in 2011. Forty-nine members (22 parents and 27 grandparents) of 16 low-income families were recruited through purposive sampling to participate in semi-structured interviews. The sample size was judged as satisfactory to reach data saturation [ 21 ]. As the study focused on parental and grandparental involvement in young children’s eating and physical activity, families of children age 3–5 years with a minimum of one parent and one actively involved grandparent were included. “Actively involved” grandparenting was defined as spending time with the child on at least two occasions each month. Since family constellations were not defined beforehand but rather based on participants’ self-reported involvement in the child’s life, the number of interviewed people per family ranged from two (one parent and one grandparent) to six (two parents, two grandparents and two step-grandparents).

To reach low-income participants, participants were recruited through advertisements in Craigslist and the jobseekers section of a local newspaper. Participants contacted the research team via phone or email. Each participant completed a sociodemographic questionnaire (Supplementary file  1 ) and took part in a one-on-one interview (lasting about 1.5–2.5 h). There were no repeat interviews and no other people were present at the interview occasion. The questionnaire included questions about education, employment, and family and living conditions (see Table  1 ). Moreover, anthropometric measures were taken (of both the interviewed adult and the child in focus), but these are not reported in the present paper. As the study utilized a mixed survey and semi-structured interview design, fieldnotes were not taken. Two female interviewers conducted the interviews, based on two pilot-tested interview guides (for parents and grandparents respectively) that were developed for this study and focused on the same main topics and questions (Supplementary file  2 , Supplementary file  3 ). The first interviewer was the last author, a postdoctoral researcher with extensive experience and training in qualitative interviewing, and the second interviewer was a research assistant (with a bachelor degree in psychology), with experience in working with preschool-aged children.

In addition to questions that focused on the child, the interview guides included questions about the participants’ childhood memories of food and eating. We did not assume that participants’ responses reflected what had actually occurred. Rather, we treated their responses as reconstructions of life events that, in the context of the interview, participants expressed as meaningful. As demonstrated in previous research, food and drink can bring forth remembrances relevant to social identity, culture and tradition, as well as illustrate broader social transformation [ 23 ]. In other words, food memories can stimulate what C. Wright Mills saw as a fundemental aspect in the sociological imagination: connecting particular individual biographies into the broad context of history [ 24 ].

Interviews were video recorded and transcribed verbatim by students at the last author’s university. Transcriptions were not shared with the participants. The study was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board at the Oregon Social Learning Centre, where the last author was a postdoctoral researcher and where all the interviews took place. Participants received an information sheet about the study, where they learned that the interviewers were interested in child development and family dynamics. All participants provided written informed consent. No potential participant who had been approached declined participation and the study had no drop-outs. Each participant was given 50 USD for their participation. Further details about the study’s methodology have been included in previous publications [ 22 , 25 , 26 , 27 ].

Data were analyzed using thematic analysis [ 28 ]. The initial phases of thematic analysis involve the organization of data and familiarization with these data. In this case, all three authors – the second and last in particular – were already well acquainted with the data. There was, however, a need for reorganization based on the aim of this analysis. The first author, who led the analysis, systematically screened the transcripts for excerpts focused on memories of food. These were copied into a new document in which the first author began a theory-driven coding procedure, using a word processor and spreadsheet software. The preliminary codes were based on propositions derived from the literature on food, families and commensality. Initially, the analysis was narrowly focused on meals. However, having carefully reviewed and discussed the data, all authors agreed that such a delimited analysis would miss important details, since the meal as a particular occasion was analytically indistinguishable from broader stories about food in the family.

The first author coded the excerpts, focusing primarily on whether or not memories were framed as positive, negative or neutral and how food activities (eating, working with food etc.) were described in terms signaling social communion, discipline or “just food” (a code signifying that the participant talked about food in an indifferent manner). The coding was then reviewed by the other authors who modified the codes and made additions, and all three deliberated about the interim analysis.

In the second stage of coding, the analysis focused on refining and adding to the initial codes. For example, additional codes were named “transmission of values”, “neglect”, “good care”, “bad care”, “good food”, “bad food”, “eat up” (when participants spoke about having to eat everything that was served), and “just the way it was” (e.g. a statement about what one used to eat or how meals were structured). The third stage of the analysis focused on abstracting the codes into themes. This was followed by further deliberation, including discussions about thematic saturation (when further analyses are judged redundant for the development of the theme). A second phase of thematization then took place, and two main themes with two respective subthemes were identified (for an illustration of the analysis process, see Fig.  1 ). These are presented below, with illustrative quotes. Findings were not discussed with participants. All participant names are pseudonyms and identifying details have been concealed.

figure 1

Flow chart of the analysis process

The main themes we identified were “Food and cohesion” and “Food and adversity”. The first theme is divided into the subthemes “Care and nurturance” and “Virtue transmission through shared meals”. The second theme is divided into the subthemes “Lack and neglect” and “Restriction and dominance”.

Food and cohesion

Many participants connected memories of food and eating in childhood to care and nurturance, encompassing both food itself and its association with affectionate relationships. In these memories, family meals and eating at home were cited as foundations of desirable values, food habits and behaviors. These positive memories framed food as an emblem of family cohesion, even when life was otherwise very hard.

Care and nurturance

When participants were asked about food memories in childhood, for example about their favorite foods or about the influence their grandparents had on their childhood diets, they often gave responses that went far beyond food and eating habits. Barbara, grandmother of 5-year-old Connor, described her relatives and family traditions when she spoke about food. “My father was always very warm and loving”, she said, adding that she “did have a very loving family unit, and family was really important. We went to church every Sunday, a lot of family gatherings, and about food too”. The interviewer went on to ask whether she remembered what she used to eat and drink, to which she said: “Oh, of course! We had specific things each holiday we had. Thanksgiving was the normal Thanksgiving, but you know like Christmas we’d have prime rib, and on Sundays my dad would cook breakfast, birthday cakes.” Thus, Barbara connected food with familial relationships and with family practices rooted in United States and Christian traditions, and she also explained how she was disciplined into eating vegetables even if she did not like them. Russell, grandfather of 5-year-old Ethan, expressed similar memories about the educating role that food played in his childhood.

As a youngster, we lived close enough to school, so for lunch we came home from school. My mother would have soup, or peanut butter sandwich, or grilled cheese. She’d have lunch waiting for us when we got home from school. Then usually in the afternoon, I’d come home hungry and have a couple bowls of cereal. At 5:30 or 6 dinner was always a family sit down. My dad would be home and we would always sit down as a family. [ … ] My mom cooked fairly well. We had steak, that was kind of a big thing if we had steak. If you weren’t home on time, if everyone finished their meal … there wasn’t any guarantee that your steak wasn’t already going to be gone. So it was kind of a punishment to not get home when you’re supposed to.

The quotes suggest the meal as a standard family gathering as well as an arena for discipline. Neither Barbara nor Russell described the disciplinary aspect of the meal as unfair, however, but as a way of bringing up children within a cohesive family unit. Similarly, Linda, grandmother of 3-year-old Edgar, mentioned that, as a child, she “didn’t like animal meat”, except “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. She further explained there was a rule in her childhood home “that you had to eat whatever was on your plate”, leading to potential difficulties when meat was served. However, Linda’s mother gave her small pieces of meat so that Linda “didn’t get into trouble with [her] dad”. In Linda’s story, meals were venues for discipline, but also revealed her mother’s flexible and caring feeding.

Several participants considered the family an important unit for fostering healthy dietary habits. In a few cases, perhaps counterintuitively, this was expressed as a byproduct of poverty. Many participants described growing up in poor farming families and having no choice but to eat fresh foods from their gardens. Patty, grandmother of 4-year old Kyra, came from a family of poor migrant farmers and said she ate healthily as a child “because we couldn’t afford the other food in the stores”. Therefore, Patty’s family “ate a lot of mashed potatoes, pinto beans … fried potatoes, biscuits and gravy. And then when we did fruit and stuff, we would eat the fruit, and my mom would can it”. While Patty talked at length about the hardships of poverty and how the family was hurt by abusive behavior and addiction, food still seemed to elicit good memories of healthy familial practices within an otherwise difficult and distressing home life.

Another side of food and care was exemplified in the story of Eve, mother of 5-year-old Kelvin. On the one hand, Eve recalled “really well balanced meals that we ate together”, but, on the other hand, she also remembered how

we always had junk food at home so it was never like I had to go out and go get it or anything like that, or sneak or anything. Just if I wanted it, it was there and if I didn’t it wasn’t ever an issue.

Eve had positive memories of food in her childhood home. Meals were “well balanced” and eaten within the family unit, but there was also individual access to treats, which she seemed to consider a good thing. The addition about her never having to “sneak or anything” suggests a notion of “junk food” consumption as an otherwise normatively regulated vice, although this was not the case in her family. This exemplifies that meaningful food memories of familial care and nurturance can center both on food considered healthy as well as on “junk food” and the freedom to snack individually.

Virtue transmission through shared meals

As hinted in some of the quotes above, participants described values and proper behavior – for example, what to eat or how to act – as disciplinary benefits of shared family meals. For example, Jane, mother of 5-year-old Kate, said that her family “always sit[s] down … and eat[s] dinner”. “[T]hat’s the best time to sit and talk too. It’s social”, she said, relating this contemporary routine to “how I was raised and that’s how the kids are going to be”. Her partner Sam (Kate’s father) shared the same sentiment. When asked about similarities between how he raised his daughter compared to how he was raised, he mentioned “the way, especially at mealtime, the value of the family”. He then continued:

Just carrying on the morals and the values instead of just creating your own. Both Jane and I have carried those same morals and values ‘cause we were both raised with very good morals and values, at least I think, otherwise we’d both be out killing and robbing.

Such conceptualizations of food and shared meals as devices for intergenerational connection were common, although expressed in varied ways. Jane mentioned how, as a child, she loved McDonald’s meals, especially chicken nuggets, a food that seemed central to her relationship with her father.

Chicken McNuggets … was a special thing and that’s how [my father] won my heart umm, yeah I don’t remember a whole bunch. I know that like everything was out of a box growing up. It’s like, it was never homemade. I just remember like, when I was learning how to cook everything like, Hamburger Helper, out of a box.

While food and mealtimes connected to positive memories of Jane’s family upbringing, hers was not a romanticized picture of particularly healthy food or idealized home cooking: the food shared was prepackaged and heavily processed, and Jane’s parents transmitted the knowledge of cooking “out of a box”. Similar to Eve’s story, described under the previous subthemes, Jane’s story exemplifies a complex association between care and feeding, in which food that might be labelled unhealthy is nonetheless associated with family cohesion.

Even when food memories were associated with impoverished or otherwise difficult life conditions, shared meals were often remembered positively. When Molly, grandmother of 5-year-old Kelly, spoke about her childhood memories of eating, these were imbued with disorder and idiosyncrasy, which she attributed to her parents’ relationship breakdown and her mother’s chronic illness. As an adult, despite living through much economic hardship, Molly valued the ordered family meals she did not have as a child. She had an ambivalent relationship to her being employed, since this meant a better financial situation but less time to cook and eat as a family. “[W]e were very poor but we did have decent food”, she said, adding that people around her might have thought otherwise since her family’s diet was low on meat and high in vegetables, something that “now I think it would be considered healthier”. She also mentioned having a

big dining room with a big table and all my kids sat at it together and I think things were okay then. It changed when I went to work, but I try to do that with my youngest one now and with Kelly when she’s there, because I would like her to have those memories.

The quote suggests a valuation of the shared family meal around a table, although this had become more and more problematic as Molly “worked [her] way up to the [manager’s] position which paid a lot more but took a lot more time”. And since this ideal was difficult to fulfil throughout her eldest children’s childhood, she now wanted to transmit this to her youngest child and her granddaughter, “because I would like her to have those memories”. As such, while Molly described food and meals as closely connected to ideals of family cohesion, these ideals had to be weighed against economic necessity. Her story therefore captured a gap between values and the ability to enact them, implicitly challenging family mealtime “prescriptions” whilst endorsing the assumptions that underlie them.

Food and adversity

While memories of food and eating in childhood were often positive, this was not the case for all participants. Indeed, participants also spoke of food and eating in their childhood homes as associated with adverse experiences of lack, neglect, rigid dietary restriction, and parental dominance.

Lack and neglect

Given food’s close association with caregiving and well-functioning families, it is no surprise that memories of food and eating also capture the opposite. One example is Diane, step-grandmother of 3-year-old Seth, for whom the lack of mealtime sociality in childhood encapsulated a general lack of parental involvement. She said:

My dad worked all the time at the factory. … He would get off really early, at 3. But he would sit home and read the newspaper. And my mom, she wasn’t involved either. They were very much the, I guess just the family where the kids raise themselves. You sit down at the table and eat together but my brothers and sisters and I, we all talk about it.

When Diane said “it”, she referred to racial tensions at her school that neither she nor her siblings talked about with their parents. “I would drink nothing before I go to school”, she explained “[s]o that way I wouldn’t go to the bathroom. I wouldn’t get beat up.” But she kept it to herself. She continued, describing how “[m]y parents never knew anything going on with our school … they just kind of ran the house. My dad would work and read the newspaper, would sit and eat dinner together and go to bed.” Diane’s father’s working schedule and the absence of any meaningful interaction at the table exemplified lacking parental involvement and neglect toward his children’s life conditions. This seems to have affected Diane’s own parenting, with an imperative to be more involved and talk to her children: “I talk to my kids. My younger daughter talks to me a lot about what’s going on.”

In the previous section, we related Molly’s story of how family meals declined when economic need drove her to work more hours outside the home. David, Molly’s son, told the story from his perspective, detailing negative experiences at which Molly hinted. “So there was less family time and stuff like that”, he began, “and as far as eating habits, I think my mom had less time and she had a lot of kids at the time.” When his mother worked, David stayed at home with her partner at the time (not his father), who, according to Molly, had a drinking problem. “[H]e was a horrible influence as a parent”, David said:

I took nothing from him that was worth anything, I don’t think. But as far as eating habits, there was more canned vegetables, Hamburger Helper and more store-bought, quick prepared foods that didn’t provide as good as nutrients and is not as healthy. I try to live a much better lifestyle now that I have more choices.

The “canned vegetables, Hamburger Helper and more store-bought, quick prepared foods” illustrated a lack of parenting abilities and neglectful behavior, materialized through ultra-processed foods. David said he learned nothing from his stepfather in terms of food, and argued that the neglectful feeding he experienced inspired him to do the opposite as an adult.

Another example of low-quality diets being associated with neglectful parenting appeared in Bell’s story. Bell, 3-year-old Seth’s mother, grew up in a poor family with parents who emigrated from East Asia. When asked about what she used to eat, she recalled her childhood hardships:

We were really poor. So my parents weren’t around a lot. So I ate a lot of junk food. I don’t have any directions as far as food goes. What I should eat, what I shouldn’t eat. It was just like whatever was around the house or in the neighborhood. … I would go get junk food every day. When we sit down together for dinner together, but, aside from that, my mom didn’t really … she would cook and like “eat it or not”. So we didn’t really have structure. So we are just like really, really skinny. And people kind of make fun of me being so skinny. So that wasn’t cool. But yeah my eating habits were terrible and didn’t have much supervision because my parents weren’t around much.

In the previous section, we showed how “junk food” and snacks could be associated with caring relationships, but Bell’s story starkly contrasted with this. Elsewhere in her interview, Bell talked about how she was “[a]lways underweight” and “like anemic when [she] was younger”. Her story included more examples of neglect, often connected to eating and health and primarily focused on Bell and her sister, but also related to her parents’ self-care, or lack thereof. Notably, while other participants described being told to “clean their plates” as a form of nurturing discipline, Bell’s mother’s ambivalent “eat it or not” attitude exemplified how the family “didn’t really have structure”. However, Bell was not entirely judgmental toward her parents. She thought her parents were not “completely up there sometimes”, but connected this to their life conditions in the United States, the crisis of migration, and their background as poor farmers in their country of origin. This ambivalence – on the one hand, feeling that one’s parents neglected both themselves and their children, yet, on the other hand, understanding the circumstances that underlay their neglect – differentiated Bell from some other participants with stories of neglectful behavior.

Restriction and dominance

While some participants remembered food-related discipline positively, other participants associated food-related discipline with adversity. These participants recollected events when food was rigidly restricted or became an instrument of dominance, such that food-related discipline compromised children’s well-being. The rigid restriction of food and eating, as opposed to a healthy setting of boundaries around food, was a form of parental control that participants described as oppressive and damaging. Barbara, who, in the previous theme, described a “loving family unit”, also talked about her mother having a disciplining side to her views on food, insisting on the children eating vegetables at every meal and not leaving the table until the food was eaten. Barbara did not characterize these rules as negative, but, later in the interview, recollected a more troubling form of discipline:

My mother was really concerned about weight and appearance. … She put me on a diet when I was 11, and I look at pictures, and I’m like, I always had a little belly. But it’s like, it was like a real diet. I remember going to the movie theater, and instead she would send me with a hardboiled egg. And I remember canned asparagus; it was like a low carbohydrate diet I think. And her telling me … I must have been six years old, she said, “Oh if only you could wear those cute clothes”. … That is one of the reasons I swore I would never, never say anything about my children’s weight. I would try and control it at home, but not say anything, because it has impacted me my whole life. Footnote 1

Although Barbara felt that some food discipline was worth transmitting, putting a child on a restrictive diet was out of the question. In another example, Jackie, mother of 5-year-old Ethan, described similar memories, which she said resulted in an unhealthy relationship with food and her body, leading to an eating disorder. She said her father “always said stuff” about her weight:

He was the commenter. My mom told him I was getting boobs when I was 10, and he was like “Oh, that’s just fat.” Stuff like that, cause he’s really judgmental, … [ … ] … because I was a girl, he was really judgmental about [my body]. So he’s been commenting about my weight constantly. My whole life. [ … ] As long as I can remember. I feel like he’s the one who gave me all my body image issues. Seriously. Footnote 2

Jackie’s father’s rigid restriction of her eating was expressed through body-focused comments. This left long-lasting marks (“I feel like he’s the one who gave me all my body image issues”), and Jackie thought that if her brother had been “chubby” instead of her, “it wouldn’t matter. But because I was a girl, he was really judgmental about it.” Jackie’s mother Thelma (Ethan’s grandmother) further illuminated Jackie’s memories. She described her husband’s character as “strong [and] stoic” and talked about his “definite ideas” about meals, saying he is “more ritualized about food” and “has more rules around food, most of it is discipline kinds of rules”. She also confirmed the remarks about Jackie’s body and reaffirmed her view of him as particularly disciplinarian: “I remember him saying ‘Does she really need a bra, or is that just fat’ … He’s not going to preach to you about weight, he’s going to get you out and run you on the track”.

Another form of rigid dietary restriction, driven by neglect and abuse, appeared in the story of Wayne, Seth’s father, whose food memories were embedded in family conflicts and alcoholism. His parents Sally and Lance, who were both interviewed, separated when Wayne was 2 years old, and he said that Lance was verbally abusive both to him and to his mother. Wayne was always hungry when staying at his father’s house, he said, “because we’d get two bucks for school lunch and school lunch was never enough”. Furthermore, his stepfather Doug (also interviewed) used to “talk a lot about how I ate when I was younger. It’s funny, I never turned into a fat kid. I have never been an emotional eater. But my stepdad gave me a really hard time about how I ate.” Wayne’s interview represents a complex case in which food memories were interwoven with memories of hunger, addiction, conflict, and poverty, upending over-generalized notions of how food brings families together to the benefit of children’s health and well-being.

Drawing on semi-structured interviews with 49 adults of two generations, most of whom had experienced socioeconomic hardship in childhood, this study found that memories of food and eating reflected both cohesion and adversity in family life. Cohesion was expressed through remembrances of care, love and culinary pleasure, with the family meal perceived as a source of virtue transmission, where values of connection, communication and good behavior were nurtured through generations. Adversity was expressed through remembrances of neglectful or deficient feeding and parenting, and through memories of damagingly restrictive discipline and dominance. Strikingly, experiences of poverty greatly imprinted on food memories, regardless of whether participants recalled joy or suffering.

Our finding that childhood memories of food and eating expressed family cohesion aligns with the situating of the family meal as a site for nutrition education and obesity prevention [ 1 , 2 ]. However, our finding that memories of food and eating also expressed family adversity problematizes the idealization of the family meal. This finding aligns with critiques that position family meals as a source of conflict, shame and dominance [ 12 , 17 ]. In our analysis, adversity related to memories of food and eating had two dimensions: neglectful parenting associated with deficient feeding, and abusive comments about children’s bodies and eating associated with rigidly restrictive feeding. The latter carry longstanding implications for body image and disordered eating, as we have described at length elsewhere [ 27 ]. These findings convey that the promotion of family-focused interventions into children’s eating should account for both the positive and the negative realities of food in family life. This is particularly important given that experiences of abuse in childhood (including emotional abuse) have emerged as a potential risk factor for obesity in adulthood [ 29 ].

A key finding was that participants remembered food they deemed unhealthy as a symbol of both care and neglect, depending on the context in which it was provided. The connection between care and what participants in our study called “junk food” suggests that, in the context of socioeconomic disadvantage, unhealthy feeding and eating may become a materialized form of care. This finding aligns with a previous study, based on 160 interviews and 80 h of observations with families in the United States, which linked the symbolic value of food with class-based notions of parenting [ 15 ]. Among low-SES families, food was used to compensate for other forms of scarcity, and food provision enabled parents to meet children’s emotional needs and reinforce their own worth as caregivers. In other words, when material resources were scarce, food considered unhealthy became a way for parents to treat their children [ 15 ]. This suggests that unhealthy eating cannot be reduced to a problem of knowledge, cost or access, but must also be understood as a form of caregiving, where nutrition may have to be weighed against other aspects of well-being. As previous studies have suggested, it is important to consider lower-income families’ food experiences and concepts of care when designing healthy eating interventions [ 30 , 31 ]. Our findings reinforce this call.

This study has both strengths and limitations, primarily pertaining to the design and to the nature of the data. Interviewing several people in the same families provided us with rich data that, had we interviewed 49 people from 49 different families, we would not have obtained. The study design allowed us to triangulate participants’ life stories in ways that challenged, confirmed, and added complexity to their narratives. The sampling strategy also gave us insight into the dynamics of extended family relations beyond parents and children. However, in the present analysis, the study design could be seen both as a weakness and as a strength. Since the original research questions mainly focused on the participants’ preschool-aged children and grandchildren, interviews emphasized domains such as children’s dietary habits and physical activity. Thus, it is possible that a different study design would have allowed for further investigation of the participants’ memories of food and eating, leading to more complex findings. At the same time, the fact that many stories included in this analysis emerged spontaneously, despite not being part of the original interview design, is a testament to how much these food memories mattered. Another limitation is the ethnic homogeneity of the study sample. The great majority of participants was white, which may affect the findings’ applicability to other ethnic groups, even with comparable socioeconomic conditions.

Moreover, as mentioned in the method section, reliance on long-term memories is subject to considerable bias. We do not claim that participants’ food memories perfectly match reality or that causal inferences can be drawn from childhood experiences to the participants’ lives at the time of interview. However, because these experiences were meaningful to the participants, who cited them as underlying their contemporary values and daily activities, this suggests that memories of food and eating can tell us something substantial about peoples’ life worlds and the sociocultural environments in which they live [ 23 ]. Finally, external validity is always an issue for data collected through qualitative interviews. Interpretations that extend the study’s findings to other national or social contexts must therefore be done with caution, and potential transferability should be carefully considered. To strengthen transferability, we suggest that researchers who wish to apply our findings to other populations contextualize these within socioeconomic and demographic data regarding these populations.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and analyzed during the current study are available from Paulina Nowicka, the project investigator, on reasonable request.

This quote also appears, in a slightly different form, in a previous publication [ 27 ].

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We thank all the parents and grandparents who took part in the Grandparents Study. We also thank Eliah Prichard, Jessica Farmer, Kelly Underwood, Bryn Shepherd, and Waihan Leung, the University of Oregon students who transcribed the interviews. We are grateful to Phil A. Fisher and Kyndal Howell from the University of Oregon, who both contributed to the conception and design of the Grandparents Study. Additional thanks go out to the Cultural Matters Group, Department of Sociology, Uppsala University, for constructive comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and to Professor Terry Hartig for inspiration to this study – to examine collective memories.

Marie Curie VINNMER International Qualification [2011-03443]; Oregon Social Learning Center; Sweden-America Foundation. Open Access funding provided by Uppsala University.

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PN designed the study and conducted most of the interviews. NN conducted most of the data analysis, literature review and writing. PN and KE contributed substantially to the data analysis, literature review and writing. NN, PN and KN have all read, approved and agreed to be accountable for the submitted manuscript.

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The Grandparents study was approved by the Internal Review Board of the Oregon Social Learning Center, where PN was a postdoctoral researcher. Participants received an information sheet about the study, where they learned that the interviewers were interested in child development and family dynamics. All participants provided written informed consent.

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Neuman, N., Eli, K. & Nowicka, P. Childhood memories of food and eating in lower-income families in the United States: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health 21 , 586 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10533-1

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10533-1

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chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

A grounded theory to understand how low-income families meet their food and nutrition needs

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The purpose of this study was to understand the process low-income families with young children experience as they strive to meet their food and nutrition needs. This study sought to answer the research question, "What helps, and what makes it difficult for low-income families to meet their food and nutrition needs?";Growing inequities in income and wealth over the last twenty years brings attention to socioeconomic position as a key factor in the growing disparities in health today and in future years. Low-income people, and especially those who are ethnic or racial minorities, are at greater risk of food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition, chronic diseases, and mortality than are people who do not have low incomes, or who are not racial/ethnic minorities. Inadequate nutrition during pregnancy, as well as during childhood, can result in negative effects on children's growth and development (physically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally), and potential productivity as adults;Focus groups, in-depth interviews and case study interviews were conducted in seven Iowa counties to gather data from 49 low-income women who had young children. Audiotapes were transcribed verbatim. Members of the research team read and re-read the raw transcripts to become familiar with the data and identify emerging themes. Through the process of open-coding five overarching categories and several subcategories were identified. Social support, a prevailing theme, was identified as the central phenomenon. Government policies, societal expectations, sense of control/personal empowerment, and past experiences were also identified as overarching categories. Through the process of axial coding, relationships between these categories and social support were identified. Through the process of selective coding the life experiences of low-income families were depicted as they worked to meet their food and nutrition needs. A visual model was developed that illustrates the grounded theory. Findings from this study have implications for the design and delivery of nutrition education and other programs serving low-income families, as well as for informing policy decisions directly affecting families.


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Food to the Rescue: Daily Table—Rescuing Food and Creating Better Alternatives for Low-Income Families

A nonprofit business model that addresses food waste and healthy food access

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Location Dorchester, MA

Date Started June 2015

Lead Organization Daily Table

Organization Type Daily Table is a nonprofit grocery store with a mission to provide nutritious and affordable meals for low-income families.

Strategy in a Nutshell Daily Table uses excess food from growers, manufacturers, distributors, and supermarkets to provide healthy food and a positive customer experience at affordable prices.

Partners Farms, grocery stores, food suppliers, manufacturers, restaurants, and local chefs (to prepare meals)

Organic Waste Diverted from Landfill 1,325,000 lbs. of food rescued/year

GHG Emissions Avoided 2,226 metric tons CO2 as of August 2017

Other Key Metrics to Date 600,000 nutritional servings per month

The Challenge and Opportunity

In the United States, one in eight Americans, or roughly 42 million people, are food insecure, that is, they lack reliable access to a steady supply of food. 1 This can contribute to a range of health issues, such as obesity and diabetes. 2 Meanwhile, up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, and much of that is fresh and healthy food. Across the country, insufficient infrastructure and resources can make it challenging to get this surplus food to those that need it the most.

To address these challenges, Daily Table, a nonprofit grocery store based in the low-income neighborhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts developed a new nonprofit business model. Run by former Trader Joe’s President Doug Rauch, Daily Table set out to use excess food from growers, manufacturers, distributors, and supermarkets to provide healthy food and a positive customer experience at affordable prices.

Daily Table is designed to “help address the challenges of hunger and obesity by providing residents with tasty, convenient, healthy, affordable food in a manner that engenders dignity while being economically sustainable.” 3 It aims to develop an economically self-sustaining model in which revenue from operations covers costs over the long term, after a startup phase supported by philanthropy.

Recipe for Success

After a successful career leading Trader Joe’s grocery chain, Doug Rauch was ready to begin a new chapter. Rauch knew that grocery stores often threw away large quantities of perishable items like fresh produce, dairy, and meat, even when these items were still perfectly healthy to eat. He also recognized the growing problem of many low-income families lacking access to healthy food. Armed with in-depth retail knowledge and a passion to create positive change, Rauch set about developing a model for a community-focused, highly efficient grocery store.

In 2011, Rauch conducted focus groups with community leaders and residents, who provided him with valuable feedback.

“People wanted a dignified answer to their food insecurity,” said Rauch. “They don’t want a store just for the poor. They want a normal life and to buy things [that they need]. They want to be able to provide for their families.” 4

These insights helped inform a range of critical decisions, including the store’s offerings, location, and community engagement strategy.

With this feedback in mind, Daily Table decided to offer both ready-to-eat balanced meals (prepared in its on-site kitchen) and a selection of produce, bread, dairy, and other healthy grocery items. It priced the prepared meals to compete with fast-food options so families are able to eat healthier within their budget and time constraints. Rauch points out that at Daily Table, a family can get the recommended amount of nutrients within its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotment and within the time constraints of a typical working poor family. 5

To ensure an ample and reliable supply of fresh groceries, Daily Table has developed an extensive network of food suppliers that donate surplus food, which is then offered to customers at significantly lower prices than at typical grocery stores. This involves coordinating large-scale donations from grocery stores, food suppliers, manufacturers, restaurants, and growers.

However, even with an extensive supplier network, Daily Table still faced potential shortages on some days for certain staple items, like milk and eggs. To ensure consistent service for customers, Daily Table incorporated purchased food into its business model, finding opportunities to purchase food at deeply discounted rates to keep products affordable.

From the outset, the Daily Table model was designed to facilitate replication. By covering its operating costs through grocery sales, Daily Table aims to break even consistently, enabling long-term sustainability for the store. Building on the continued progress of the Dorchester store, Daily Table will open a second store in Roxbury, Massachusetts in November 2017. This store will use the Dorchester store’s existing kitchen facilities, which allows Daily Table to spread fixed costs while bringing the same healthy meals to an additional underserved neighborhood. Looking ahead, Daily Table is planning an expansion strategy that will potentially include other U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and Baton Rouge.

Start with the end in mind. Daily Table’s objective is to provide low-income communities with access to affordable, healthy food as well as to prevent food from going to waste. These objectives drove many fundamental decisions in the design and rollout of its business model. For example, early on, Rauch explored an exclusive partnership with Whole Foods Market that would have meant Daily Table’s stores were located near existing Whole Foods markets. However, since most Whole Foods markets are not in underserved areas, this would limit Daily Table’s ability to achieve a key part of its mission.

As a result, Daily Table chose to partner with a broad range of suppliers. This decision allowed Rauch to choose the first store location based on where he saw the greatest need and opportunity for impact. Rauch ended up choosing Codman Square in Dorchester, a low-income area with many fast-food options, but few affordable healthy alternatives. This choice also allowed Daily Table to partner and colocate with a nonprofit community health center.

Engage the local community. By reaching out early to the local community, Rauch was able to build a store that was welcomed by the community and is responsive to its needs and interests. This outreach informed Daily Table’s product selection and efforts to recruit staff and partners from the community. Daily Table also invited local business, civic, health, education, faith, and community leaders to join its Community Advisory Council to act as both ambassadors and advisors. 6

Focus on customer needs and the customer experience. Daily Table is designed around customer experience and customer needs. According to Rauch, community engagement efforts revealed the key insights that, “Poverty is not just economic. It’s also a poverty of time and sometimes it is also poverty of knowledge and resources and knowing what to do with things.” These insights informed Daily Table’s operations, such as the inclusion of an on-site kitchen that prepares ready-to-eat meals.

Establish an economically self-sustaining business model. Daily Table generates enough revenue to cover most of its operating costs and to significantly reduce its reliance on monetary donations. While philanthropic support was critical for starting the venture, Daily Table aims to break even, allowing it to replicate and increase its scale over time.

Focus on community health. As a mission-driven, nonprofit, Daily Table is committed to providing a dignified customer experience, promoting a healthy diet, and ultimately, helping to improve the overall health of community residents. To help achieve these commitments, Daily Table established a Nutrition Task Force that includes experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Boston Organization of Nutritionists & Dietitians of Color, and other local health organizations. 7 This task force sets guidelines for salt, sugar, fat, fiber, and other health factors (which are even more stringent than U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines). These guidelines inform decisions about the types of food that Daily Table will accept and sell. For example, Daily Table does not accept donations of (and does not sell) highly processed or sugary foods, such as cookies.

Establish quality-control processes to ensure food quality and safety. Daily Table has established robust quality-control measures to ensure food safety. The organization has also invested in high-quality infrastructure, such as a blast freezer, refrigerated trucks, and temperature control blankets, to ensure food freshness and safety.

Cities and states can play an important role in supporting organizations such as Daily Table that address food insecurity. In particular, cities can help create incentives to increase food donations from the business sector.

Design and implement policies that encourage food donations. In October 2014, Massachusetts enacted a regulation prohibiting businesses and institutions from disposing of more than one ton of food waste per week. 8 Such regulations can raise awareness and generate donations of surplus food.

In addition, many potential food donors lack a clear understanding of local food safety regulations. City health departments can streamline and clarify food donation guidelines and provide information on liability protection and tax benefits to encourage donations from businesses and institutions like colleges, hospitals, and schools. City health inspectors can be instrumental in sharing this information and educating food donors to help ensure that they donate safely.

Beneficial tax treatments are another potential strategy for encouraging businesses to donate surplus food. Currently, federal tax code only allows tax deductions for if the food is provided free to beneficiaries. Companies that donate food to Daily Table or other nonprofit food retailers are unable to claim tax benefits. To counter this challenge, cities (potentially in partnership with states) could provide local food donors with local or state-level tax credits.

Cities can also help form partnerships between public, private, and nonprofit entities to help replicate networks that deliver a truly inclusive solution within low-income communities.

Provide underserved communities with better, affordable food options. Rauch explains, “Our job at Daily Table is to provide healthy meals that are no more expensive than what people are already buying.” 9 Daily Table has taken many steps to communicate with community leaders and stakeholders to ensure that they have a voice and that the store is responsive to their needs. From co-locating with a health-focused nonprofit to establishing nutrition guidelines, Daily Table seeks to incorporate community feedback to help the traditionally underserved, such as the working poor, live healthier lives.

Hire from within the local community and provide training to advance careers. Daily Table works to contribute economic benefits to the community where it is located, committing to hire from within that community. Nearly 80 percent of new employees are from the immediate area, in the neighborhoods of Codman Square and Four Corners in Dorchester. 10 Daily Table also offers its employees training in job and life skills, such as finance, communication, and resume writing. This training is intended to help “employees feel confident and capable of succeeding in a retail position elsewhere in the marketplace.“ 11

Community Group Partners

  • Codman Square Health Center
  • Healthworks Community Fitness
  • Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters
  • Future Chefs
  • New England Center for Arts & Technology
  • Kit Clark Senior Services
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston: Blue Hill Club
  • Dorchester YMCA
  • ChopChopKids

Food Supplier Partners

  • Alfredo Aiello Italian Foods
  • Al fresco all natural
  • American Farmer
  • B & B Trading
  • Barney Butter
  • Bay State Farm Direct Flowers
  • Blue Marble Brands
  • Boston Area Gleaners
  • Boston Organics
  • Cambridge Packing Company
  • Cedar’s Mediterranean Foods
  • Chelsea Produce Terminal
  • Chosen Foods
  • Cindy’s Kitchen
  • Costas Provisions
  • Equal Exchange
  • Eva’s Garden
  • Exotic Foods
  • Food for Free
  • The Food Project
  • The Greater Boston Food Bank
  • Green Mountain Creamery
  • Hain Celestial
  • Handmade Real Foods
  • Health Warrior
  • International Harvest
  • J. Bonafede & Sons
  • John Nagle Co.
  • Kayem Foods
  • The Leavitt Corporation
  • Marvel Foods
  • Monsoon Kitchens
  • Nashoba Brook Bakery
  • Newman’s Own
  • Pain D’Avignon
  • Pier Fish Company
  • Poultry Products Northeast
  • Samuel Holmes
  • South Shore Organics
  • Stone & Skillet
  • Stonyfield Farm
  • Victoria Gourmet
  • Vitasoy USA
  • Water Fresh Farm
  • Wegmans Food Markets
  • Whole Foods Market
  • Wright-Locke Farm Conservancy

1. NRDC, Wasted: How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill , 2017, https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-executive-summary.pdf . 2. National Center for Biotechnology Information, Food Insecurity Is Associated with Obesity Among US Adults in 12 States , 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4584410/ . 3. http://dailytable.org/faqs/ 4. Rosabeth Moss Kantor, et al., Advanced Leadership Pathways: Doug Rauch and the Daily Table (Harvard Business School, 2016), http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=50773 . 5. Doug Rauch, founder and president of Daily Table, conversation, July 6, 2016. 6. Daily Table, Frequently Asked Questions , http://dailytable.org/faqs/ . 7. Ibid. 8. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban , http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/recycle/reduce/food-waste-ban.html . 9. Taryn Luna, “Nonprofit Grocery Store Set to Open in Dorchester,” The Boston Globe , 22 22 2015, https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/05/21/nonprofit-daily-table-grocery-store-set-open-dorchester/CBzBHC1RsEOVCSgOFa0p9O/story.html . 10. Daily Table, Frequently Asked Questions , http://dailytable.org/faqs/ (August 1, 2017). 11. Ibid.

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San Francisco has been running a successful curbside food scrap composting collection program.

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Well-Being and Stability among Low-income Families: A 10-Year Review of Research

Yoshie sano.

1 Department of Human Development, Washington State University Vancouver, 14204 NE Salmon Creek Avenue, Vancouver, WA 98686 USA

Sheila Mammen

2 Department of Resource Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 309 Stockbridge Hall, Amherst, MA 01003 USA

Myah Houghten

3 Child and Family Research Unit, Washington State University Extension, 412 E. Spokane Falls Blvd, Spokane, WA 99202 USA

Scholarship on families in poverty, in the last decade, documented various struggles and challenges faced by low-income families and expanded our understanding of their complicated life circumstances embedded within the contexts of community, culture, and policies. The research articles published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues during this time, that highlighted poverty, focused primarily on three topic areas: economic security, family life issues, and food security. Overall, findings conclude that family well-being and stability cannot be promoted without the consideration of environmental factors. They depend on the interaction among individual (e.g., increased human capital), family (e.g., positive co-parental relationship), community (e.g., affordable childcare), and policy changes (e.g., realistic welfare-to-work programs). Collectively, the articles have provided a road map for future research directions.


Family well-being, essential to the smooth functioning of communities and societies, is hindered when there is high incidence of poverty. Poverty rate in the US hovered around 14% prior to the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PROWRA) of 1996 (U.S. Census 2019a ). Following welfare reform, the poverty rate started to decline (to a low of 11.3% in 2000) (U.S. Census 2019a ), although scholars have questioned if PROWRA is the cause of this decline. Uncertainties in the economy, including the 2008 Great Recession, caused the poverty rate to climb again and remain at around 15% until 2014. With the fading effects of the recession, the US poverty rate was at 11.8% in early 2020, right before the current Coronavirus pandemic. One group that is most vulnerable to poverty, however, are female-headed households, who consistently comprise 50% of all households living in poverty. Other vulnerable groups include non-Whites [poverty rate in 2018, Blacks: 22%; Hispanics: 19%; Native Americans: 24%] (Kaiser Family Foundation 2020 ); rural communities [poverty rate in 2018, non-metro: 16%; metro: 13%] (Economic Research Service 2020 ); and children [poverty rate in 2018, 16%; i.e. 1 in every 6 children] (US Census 2019b ).

Family well-being is a multidimensional concept that refers to a family’s subjective sense of overall welfare, taking into account the physical and emotional health of family members as well as their interconnectedness, which in turn results in family stability (a sense of consistency, predictability, and continuity). There are many components that contribute to the well-being of families such as income sufficiency, food security, stable family environment, mental and physical health security, safe housing and communities, employment opportunities, and adequate transportation. These components, taken as a whole, provide the necessary foundation for the well-being of families. For low-income families, in particular, the lack of some or all of these dimensions can be severely detrimental to their well-being since this could lead to poverty. Such a direct link between lack of well-being and poverty can ultimately lead to family instability.

In this paper, we will review select research findings of the past decade published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues from 2010 to 2019 that have increased our understanding of low-income families living in poverty. Each study employed a unique approach to its particular topic. Some studies utilized large secondary datasets including both metropolitan and non-metropolitan residents while others collected their own data from a smaller sample generated by non-probability sampling. However, all studies focused on low-income families in the United States with the exception of one study that examined poverty-related social policy in Columbia. The 29 papers, 1 while highly diverse, all illustrated the strengths and challenges faced by individuals and families living with limited resources.

Our review was carried out in multiple stages. First, each author independently reviewed the 29 articles, and then the authors qualitatively compared and contrasted the main themes that emerged from these articles. In the last step, the authors identified three specific dimensions of well-being 2 : economic security, family life, and food security. Our objective was not to provide a comprehensive summary of all poverty-related issues addressed in these articles but, rather, to synthesize the research findings along these three dimensions to see how they have contributed to the current knowledge base regarding low-income families and to provide a path for future research in order to improve family well-being and stability.

Families in Poverty: Decade in Review

Economic security among low-income families.

In the last decade, research on the economic security of low-income families has centered around poverty dynamics, the effectiveness of welfare-to-work programs, employment issues, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and banking behavior.

Poverty Dynamics

Mammen et al. ( 2015 ) developed the Economic Well-Being Continuum (EWC) as a comprehensive measure to describe the circumstances of low-income families in eight specific dimensions (child care, employability, food security, health care security, housing security, transportation, reliance of assistance programs, and capabilities) and establish their level of economic functioning (persistently poor, struggling, and getting by). When certain life circumstances and trigger events experienced by low-income mothers, which contributed to their entry into and exit from poverty, were examined with the EWC, the authors found that family health issues and changes in mothers’ intimate relationships acted as significant trigger events that established or altered the economic functioning of the families. We believe that what mitigated families’ hardships was their support networks. Prawitz et al. ( 2013 ) reported on the centrality of locus of control among low-income individuals who expressed less financial distress and more hopefulness when locus of control was more internal to them. When low-income individuals were able to make financial adjustments, however, they had more financial distress, accompanied with more hopefulness, possibly implying that while the current situation may be bleak, their adaptive responses may have fostered hopefulness that things would improve.

Effectiveness of Welfare-to-Work Programs Among Low-Income Families

One of the goals of PRWORA was to enable recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to exit the program and enter the job market. The transition from welfare to work, however, was not as effective when low-income individuals were trained only through labor force attachment (LFA) programs. Kim ( 2010 , 2012 ) found that former TANF recipients were more likely to obtain employment when LFA programs were combined with human capital development (HCD) programs as participation in HCD programs were related to longer employment durations and lower probability of TANF re-entry.

Participants in Welfare-to-Work programs, who succeeded leaving assistance and obtaining employment, disclosed low wages; informal labor market activity; notable levels of unmet needs; and continued government, community, and social support use (Livermore et al. 2011 ). Those with higher earnings and regular nonmonetary help from family and friends were likely to have more needs met; those who had fewer needs met reported lower wages, had more young children, used government support programs (including childcare subsidies), and engaged in informal labor market activity (Davis et al. 2018 ; Grobe et al. 2017 ; Livermore et al. 2011 ).

Employment Issues

An important way to exit poverty and attain economic security is through employment. Unfortunately, many low-income mothers, especially rural low-income mothers, face daunting challenges to remain employed. Son and Bauer ( 2010 ) reported that mothers who were able to remain in the same job did so because they utilized their limited resources and developed strategies to combine work and family life. These strategies included utilizing social support network for childcare and other household activities as well as relying, where possible, on flexibility at work such as non-standard work hours and supportive supervisors.

One way that low-income mothers were more likely to be employed, and especially employed full-time, was if they were provided state childcare subsidy (Davis et al. 2018 ) and the receipt of childcare subsidy was tied to their employment (Grobe et al. 2017 ). High level of job instability (job loss, major reduction in work hours), however, created a greater likelihood of losing the childcare subsidy. While job changes per se was not related to loss of childcare subsidy, parents required the subsidy to remain employed.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

The EITC program, initiated in 1975, is the largest federal assistance program targeted towards working poor families in order to supplement their household wages and to offset their Social Security taxes (Mammen et al. 2011 ). Despite the many benefits of the EITC, a substantial portion of working families, especially in rural communities, do not participate in the program. Mammen et al. ( 2011 ) found that, among rural low-income women, the EITC non-participants were more likely to be Hispanic, be less educated, have larger families, perceive their income as being inadequate, live in more rural counties, and possess little understanding of the EITC. Participating rural working mothers, on the other hand, were more likely to be single, food secure, and satisfied with life.

One important element of the EITC program is the frequency with which the tax credit payments are received by the working families: lumpsum, periodic, or monthly. Kramer et al. ( 2019 ) reported that periodic EITC payment recipients experienced significantly lower levels of perceived financial stress. This relationship was partly mediated by less need to borrow money, lower levels of food insecurity, and fewer unpaid bills. Therefore, periodic EITC payments may enhance the positive association between the EITC and financial well-being of families.

Banking Behavior of Low-Income Families

Having a bank account is more likely to enable low-income families to build assets and to offset unexpected financial expenditures. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), among households with incomes less than $30,000, 38% of them were unbanked in 2017 (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 2018 ). Grinstein-Weiss et al. ( 2010 ) found that low-income households who did not have a bank account (unbanked) were more likely to be younger, Black, unpartnered, have more children, and have less income. They were also less likely to have attended college and less likely to be employed full-time. Banked participants, however, were more likely to have better saving performance in Individual Development Accounts (IDA) 3 programs and lower risks of dropping out the IDA programs. According to Rao and Malapit ( 2015 ), for female-headed households, having an additional child increased their likelihood to be underbanked or unbanked. Such financial behavior is more prevalent among female-headed households compared to couples or male-headed households, likely due to the opportunity cost of time for women and the intimidation they feel, perhaps, based on their lack of banking sophistication.

Family Life Issues

Family is where individuals seek rest and support, take nutrition, promote good health and, perhaps, most importantly, raise the next generation. In this section we will discuss findings from the last decade on work-family balance, parenting dynamics, and child well-being and poverty.

Work and Family Life

Many rural low-income families face daunting challenges to balance work and family life. Katras et al. ( 2015 ) found low-income families were able to juggle the demands of work and family life if they had access to resources such as informal social support, could manage both work and family time, and were in jobs that supported work and family life. Difficulties regarding availability of resources or inflexibility in employment created problems in work and family life balance (Katras et al. 2015 ). As mentioned previously, low-income mothers relied on informal support for childcare and household tasks. They also depended on sympathetic supervisors who provided flexible work hours (Son and Bauer 2010 ).

Work-family life balance that working mothers try to achieve can be easily sabotaged by housing instability. Kull et al. ( 2016 ) reported that higher residential mobility was associated with changes in employment status and relationships, experiences of intimate partner violence, as well as private-market rentals, substandard housing, and bad neighborhoods.

Parenting Dynamics

In their study of unmarried couples who coparented children, Jamison et al. ( 2017 ) documented that the difficulties of living in poverty, combined with the demands of parenting young children, can create stress and chaos. Parents who were successful in coparenting were those who were able to manage their limited resources well. Jamison et al. concluded that the best way of assisting low-income couples manage day-to-day stress is by providing them with adequate resources as well as information on how to use these resources effectively.

Traditionally, poverty research has focused on low-income mothers. Myers ( 2013 ), however, studied how low-income fathers defined responsible fatherhood. Previous findings on middle-class fathers have emphasized the importance of breadwinning and childcare rearing roles (Schoppe-Sullivan and Fagon 2020 ). Low-income fathers, who did not provide finances or primary care, on the other hand, did not consider responsible fatherhood to include provision for either of these two functions. Instead they defined responsible fatherhood as spending time in non-caregiving activities, voluntarily distancing themselves from a child when it is in the child’s interest to do so, acknowledging paternity in non-legal settings, spending money on presents, engaging in fun activities, attending to special needs, keeping abreast of what is going on in the child’s home, and ensuring that they are not absent from the child’s life (Myers 2013 ).

Child Well-Being and Poverty

The association between poverty and negative child outcomes has been well-established. Children growing up in poverty are more likely to experience negative health outcomes, poor academic performance, higher dropout rates, and behavioral issues compared to children in middle- and upper-income households (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997 ). Focusing on three economic indicators (income, material hardship, and non-liquid assets), Kainz et al. ( 2012 ) found an association among them and variations in 36-month old children’s social and cognitive development. Poverty status, measured by income-to-needs ratio, was related to lower cognitive skills while the presence of non-liquid assets was associated with higher cognitive skills. Greater material hardship was correlated with more social problems for these children.

Investing in children’s education produces positive child outcomes (Chaudry and Wimer 2016 ). Child subsidy programs expand childcare options for low-income parents. De Marco and Vernon-Feagans ( 2015 ) found that parents who received child subsidies tended to choose center-based care. They concluded that childcare, regardless of type, was of higher quality when these families received child subsidies. Okech ( 2011 ), whose focus was on parents’ decision to enroll in preschool children’s college education accounts, found that decisions were influenced by parental education level as well as parents’ participation in information sessions about the account.

Another indicator of child well-being is good health. According to Valluri et al. ( 2015 ), low-income mothers chose healthcare visits for themselves and their child simultaneously. Pediatric visits increased with new medical conditions and greater number of chronic conditions among children, and maternal healthcare use increased with higher maternal depression scores, chronic conditions, new medical conditions, more children, more pediatric visits, prenatal/post-partum needs, and having health insurance coverage. Maternal health visits, on the other hand, decreased with maternal depression, pregnancy, being Latina or Black, having more children, and if mothers were covered through private health insurance.

Food Insecurity

Consumption of nutritious food is necessary for a healthy, productive life for both adults and children. Having enough food at home contributes to an enhanced sense of family well-being. In this section, we will discuss findings related to the measurement of food insecurity, factors influencing food insecurity, and food-related assistance programs.

Measurement of Food Insecurity

Balistreri ( 2016 ) argued that the commonly used measure of food security (18-item U.S. Household Food Security Survey) only captures the prevalence of food insecurity, not its depth or severity. He has, instead, proposed the Food Insecurity Index (FII) to assess the degree of food insecurity. Using the FII, Balistreri found that low-income households without children experienced the most rapid increases in the depth and severity of food insecurity since the 2008 Great Recession until 2018. Although White non-Hispanic households, with or without children, had lower food insecurity prevalence rates, they experienced steeper increases in both depth and severity throughout the last decade. Finally, Black non-Hispanic households, with and without children, were most likely to suffer food insecurity.

Factors Leading to Food Insecurity

Guo ( 2011 ) documented that, regardless of socio-economic status, family food security is related to household assets. This is because the interaction between household assets and income loss buffered changes in food consumption patterns. Further, regardless of household income level, the risk of food insecurity increased, when faced with liquidity constraint and asset inadequacy (Chang et al. 2014 ). This relationship was strongest among low-income families. Financial constraint was found to be an exogenous factor in the determination of food insecurity. Food insecurity also resulted partly from the interaction between unstable income and nonstandard work schedules (multiple jobs, part-time, varied hours). While this association differed across household types, it was most pronounced in male- and female-headed households, and weakest among married couples (Coleman-Jensen 2011 ). The above findings, taken together, implies that food insecurity should be considered in the broader context of asset building and work environment.

The food security of Latino immigrant families in rural communities was influenced by multiple ecological layers. This included family characteristics (higher literacy and life skills), community conditions (state of the local economy, embrace of diversity, affordable housing, and access to health care), cultural values (familism), as well as federal immigration policy (Sano et al. 2011 ). The rapidly expanding growth among Latino families in rural areas of the US requires that attention be paid to the food security needs of this mostly vulnerable population (Hanson 2016 ). In rural Colombia, conditional cash transfers (CCT) increased the perception of food insecurity and subjective poverty among marginalized families (Morales-Martínez and Gori-Maia 2018 ). The conditionalities (families’ commitment to education, good health, and proper nutrition) imposed on the beneficiary families reduced their dissatisfaction with health and education.

Food-Related Assistance Programs

In 2005 and 2010, metro and non-metro households had relatively similar levels of food insecurity. Yet, Nielsen et al. ( 2018 ) reported that a higher proportion of non-metro households received government food assistance (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children [WIC], free and/or reduced school meals, and related local and/or federal programs) compared to metro households. After the Great Recession, when government resources were expanded, this assistance gap widened even further. Nonetheless, according to Chang et al. ( 2015 ), participation in SNAP and WIC programs increased fruit and vegetable consumption significantly among disadvantaged families. Other factors such as exercise habits, family support, and willingness to adopt a healthy lifestyle played a bigger role in increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. For some families, however, nutrition knowledge seemed to decrease actual intake of the same.

In a study that identified nonfood needs of low-income households who patronized food pantries, Fiese et al. ( 2014 ) classified product needs into three categories: products for survival (water, food, medicine), products to keep the household together (soap, toilet paper, hygiene products), and products to “make do” (paper plates, dish soap, household cleaning supplies). When households went without these products, it resulted in stress, personal degradation, and in illegal activities.

Overall Summary of Findings

The research findings from JFEI articles presented above have identified multiple challenges and have suggested future research directions to improve the well-being and stability of vulnerable families. Taken together, the findings imply that family economic functioning depends on the interaction among individual, family, and contextual factors (e.g., social network, culture, policies). Additionally, emphasizing employment alone, without consideration of factors such as childcare (availability, accessibility, affordability) or jobs (availability, flexibility), is not adequate to successfully enable welfare recipients to exit the program. Governmental and institutional support also play an important role in the economic security of low-income families, such as participation in the EITC, for those who are eligible, and in the banking sector.

In order to balance work and family life, which would contribute to family well-being, working poor mothers require informal social support, especially for childcare and household tasks. In addition to effective resource management skills, it is important for low-income mothers to have a reliable co-parent who is more likely to decrease day-to-day stress and chaos in the household. Even those low-income fathers, unable to provide finances and primary care, may provide support in non-traditional ways, thereby, contributing to family stability. Utilizing available resources such as childcare subsidies, college savings programs, or local financial institutions enhance child well-being.

Food security is another important aspect of family well-being. New measures combined with traditional approaches should be used to capture the true extent of the depth and severity of food insecurity. Multidimensional in nature, food insecurity is impacted, not only by income, but also by household assets, food management knowledge and skills, cultural values, community resources, as well as federal policies. This is particularly true for racial/ethnic minorities and rural immigrant families.

Future Research Directions

The 29 articles from the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, that are reviewed here, suggest strategies for improved family well-being and increased stability. These strategies incorporate the true needs of low-income families with a variety of support systems at the individual (e.g., increase human capital), family (e.g., positive co-parental relationship), community (e.g., affordable childcare), and policy (e.g., realistic welfare-to-work programs) levels. The findings of these studies have provided a road map for future research directions. In this section, we will present a general direction for future research; detailed research recommendations, tied to specific findings, can be found in Table ​ Table1 1 (Economic Security), Table  2 (Family Life Issues), and Table  3 (Food Security).

Summary of findings and suggested areas of future research on economic security among low-income families

Summary of findings and suggested areas of future research questions on family life issues among low-income families

Summary of findings and suggested areas of future research questions on food insecurity among low-income families

Future research should examine life circumstances and trigger events that may affect changes in families’ economic functioning including the size and duration of its impact. Recent examples of trigger events that could cause a cascading effect on low-income families include natural disasters, the opioid crisis, technological displacement of jobs, and the novel Coronavirus pandemic. Research should also look at how such events may be mitigated in vulnerable families by individuals’ agencies such as internal locus of control, hopefulness, and financial literacy. The evaluation of current welfare programs and policies strongly suggest that future research must explore the impact of variations of state welfare policies including work requirements, strategies to incentivize employers to provide flexible work policies, and community-based support systems for parents of young children. Scholars should also explore low-income families’ attitudes, knowledge, and decision-making processes in the area of finances including their reluctance to participate in the banking sector and, for those who qualify, in the EITC program. At the same time, scholars should also not neglect to identify disincentives created by financial institutions that stand in the way of families participating in the banking system.

Previous research has established that work-family balance is vital for low-income mothers to obtain and maintain their employment in order to promote family well-being. Future research should focus on strategies to incentivize employers to provide flexible work policies and to establish community-based support systems. This current pandemic has created a loss of employment opportunities and loss of income especially for low-income working families; future research should, therefore, evaluate the meaning of work flexibility to include off-site work and job sharing.

Positive child development is embedded in family and social contexts. To prevent generational poverty, future lines of inquiry should go beyond mothers’ perspectives alone to include multiple voices of other family members such as co-parents (especially fathers), older and step-children, and grandparents. Additionally, research should focus on the impact of parental decisions regarding childcare enrollment and healthcare visits on the long-term outcome of children. Finally, the association between receipt of governmental assistance and the stigma experienced by low-income families, particularly among rural families, would be another important area of study.

Future research must investigate the role of economic volatility, market conditions, and policy changes in understanding the relationship between family finances and employment of low-income families and food insecurity. For poor immigrant families, the effect of documentation status and immigration policy changes on food insecurity cannot be understated and, to capture the nuances of their food needs, qualitative and mixed-methods studies would be preferred. Future studies should also incorporate geographical information to identify reasons why urban–rural disparity occurs among food insecure families when attempting to access food and possible strategies that would enable food-insecure metro families to access food. It is equally important to assess family income and food budgeting on families’ dietary habits as well as parental modeling and family food environment on healthy food behavior.


is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University Vancouver. She received her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Sciences from Oregon State University. Her research focuses on well-being of rural, low-income families including family relations, health issues, and food insecurity. Her current research projects include a multi-state longitudinal research projects, Rural Families Speak about Heath (RFSH) and Rural Families Speak about Resilience (RFSR) which examine interactions of individual, family, community, and policy contexts on the family outcomes among diverse rural, low-income families.

is Professor Emerita in the Department of Resource Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her Ph.D. in Family Economics from the University of Missouri Columbia. The major thrust of her research has been on the economic well-being of families. For the last two decades, she has focused on rural low-income families with special emphasis on issues of income sufficiency, employment, and health security.

is a Project Associate with the Washington State University Extension, Child and Family Research Unit. Myah holds graduate degrees in Landscape Architecture and Public Administration, and she is currently a Ph.D. Candidate within the WSU Prevention Science program. Her work and research seek to better understand school and community conditions that help buffer against ACEs and trauma and that best contribute to increased academic achievement. Current research includes program development, evaluation, and technical assistance in support of trauma-informed professional development within diverse schools and learning communities.

1 The 29 articles reviewed in this paper were assigned by the special editor of this issue of the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. More information is in the introduction to the special issue.

2 Other dimensions of family well-being are being reviewed by other authors in this special issue. A topic of “health” was covered by Chaudhuri and “health and family” issues were covered by Tamborini.

3 An individual development account (IDA) is an asset building program designed to enable low-income families to connect to the financial mainstream by saving towards a targeted amount usually used for building assets.

This is one of several papers published together in Journal of Family and Economic Issues on the “Special Issue on Virtual Decade in Review”.

The original online version of this article was revised due to a retrospective Open Access cancellation.

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Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Change history

A Correction to this paper has been published: 10.1007/s10834-020-09746-0

Contributor Information

Yoshie Sano, Email: ude.usw@onas_eihsoy .

Sheila Mammen, Email: ude.ssamu.noceser@nemmams .

Myah Houghten, Email: ude.usw@nethguoh .

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A Dozen Facts about America’s Struggling Lower-Middle-Class

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Melissa s. kearney and melissa s. kearney nonresident senior fellow - economic studies , center for economic security and opportunity @kearney_melissa ben harris ben harris vice president and director - economic studies , director - retirement security project @econ_harris.

December 4, 2013

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This Hamilton Project policy paper provides a dozen facts on struggling lower-middle-class families focusing on two key challenges: food insecurity, and the low return to work for struggling lower-middle-class families who lose tax and transfer benefits as their earnings increase. These facts highlight the critical role of federal tax and transfer programs in providing income support to families struggling to remain out of poverty.

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Many American families whose incomes are not low enough to officially place them in poverty live in economically precarious situations. This struggling lower-middle class consists of the 30 percent of working-age families with children who have incomes between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or between roughly $15,000 and $60,000, depending on family composition. Though not officially poor, these individuals and families experience limited economic security. One major setback could thrust them into economic chaos.

The struggling lower-middle class encompasses low- and middle-skilled workers whose wages have stagnated in recent decades (Autor, Katz, and Kearney 2008). More than half of these families are headed by married couples, and of these families, roughly half rely on two earners to make ends meet. While lower-middle-class families face many challenges, this policy paper focuses on two pointed struggles—food insecurity and low returns to work due to the design of tax and transfer programs.

Compared to families officially living in poverty, these struggling lower-middle-class families have substantially different characteristics: they have higher rates of marriage, more dual-earning spouses, and higher levels of educational attainment, yet they face some of the same challenges faced by families living in poverty. For example, these households are often unable to meet the most basic requirement of obtaining a sufficient diet. In 2012 more than 24 percent of struggling lower-middle-class children ages twelve to seventeen (or approximately 1.7 million children) lived in a household identified as being food insecure. Many of these families also rely on government programs for income support. In 2012 approximately one in three struggling lower-middle-class families (approximately 3.7 million families) relied on at least one major federal government transfer program. In fact, more than 20 percent of families (approximately 2.4 million families) relied on food stamps in that year alone.

An array of tax and transfer programs—including food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—strengthen the resources available to struggling lower-middle-class families and provide a safety net for families in need. Income support programs undoubtedly improve the economic well-being of families on the cusp of poverty, but they often come with unintended consequences. One major problem, highlighted in this paper, is the implicit tax on families who receive reduced benefits as a result of higher earnings. Transfer program benefits phase out as family earnings rise, which reduces the return to work and makes it difficult for these families to work their way firmly into a better economic life.

A founding principle of The Hamilton Project’s economic strategy is that long-term prosperity is best achieved by fostering economic growth and broad participation in that growth. This principle calls for economic security among a thriving and prosperous middle class, which has been a long-celebrated feature of our nation’s social and economic fabric. In this spirit, we offer “A Dozen Facts about America’s Struggling Lower-Middle-Class” to bring attention to who these families are, to highlight two particular challenges facing this broad group of American society, and to set up a framework to consider what policies would be appropriate for strengthening their economic security and well-being.

These facts focus on those who are above the federal poverty level, and yet are still quite economically insecure, relying on government transfers, facing high levels of anxiety about being able to feed their families, and facing extremely high marginal tax rates as they try to work themselves securely away from poverty.

Chapter 1 describes the group we define as made up of struggling lower-middle-class families. Chapter 2 focuses on the challenge of food insecurity and provides information about the nation’s most-important and wide-reaching government program focused to address this issue, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Chapter 3 presents evidence about the relevant set of tax and transfer programs facing the struggling lower-middle class, highlighting how this panoply of programs can inadvertently make the climb into middle-class security more difficult.

Chapter 1: A Snapshot of Struggling Lower-Middle-Class Families

Many families in America’s struggling lower-middle class—defined to include those with income between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or between roughly $15,000 and $60,000, depending on family size and composition—live in economically precarious situations. Though not officially poor, these families experience limited economic security; one major setback in income could push them into poverty.

1. More than half of families in the United States earn $60,000 or less per year.

More than half of America’s working-age families with children under age eighteen (approximately 20.1 million families) have annual incomes of $60,000 or below. This is true whether we consider only earned wages and salary, or if we use a broader definition of pretax, pretransfer income, which also includes some unearned sources of income, such as investment income and alimony payments. Figure 1 shows the distributions for working-age families by (1) earned income, and (2) pretax, pretransfer income. (Neither of these measures includes taxes or transfer payments.).

The blue and green dotted lines in figure 1, corresponding to the right axis, show the cumulative share of families with income under various thresholds. Around 40 percent of families earn $40,000 or less each year, 54 percent of families earn $60,000 or less (demonstrated by the black dotted line), and 76 percent of working-age families earn $100,000 or less. For working-age families with children, earning over $100,000 is the exception, not the rule.

The vertical bars in figure 1, corresponding to the left axis, show the percent of families that fall within various income ranges. About 15 percent of working-age families (or approximately 5.6 million families) earn between $1 and $20,000 a year, while 19 percent of families (approximately 7.1 million families) earn between $20,001 and $40,000. On the opposite end of the distribution, fewer than 3 percent of families earn $260,001 or more.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

2. Nearly half of families in the United States live below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

Nearly one in five American working-age families with children lives in poverty, officially defined as being below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Approximately 30 percent of families have incomes that place them between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL. Federal poverty thresholds vary by family size and composition, meaning that families with the same income, but with different household compositions, can be in different positions relative to the FPL.

The U.S. Census Bureau defined the FPL in 2012 for a family made up of one adult and one child to be $15,825 (250 percent of the FPL for this family was therefore $39,563); for a family with two adults and one child, the FPL was $18,480 (250 percent of the FPL was $46,200); for a family with two adults and two children, the FPL was $23,283 (250 percent of the FPL was $58,208); and for a family with two adults and three children, the FPL was $28,087 (250 percent of the FPL was $70,218) (U.S. Census Bureau 2012).

These families’ proximity to the poverty line means that any unanticipated downturns in income could push them into poverty. For this reason, we could reasonably consider these families to be the struggling lower-middle class. Figure 2 illustrates the income distribution relative to the FPL for working-age families with children under age eighteen. Together, these statistics (represented by the dotted black line) reveal that nearly half of American families live either in poverty or in the struggling lower-middle class.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

3. Struggling lower-middle-class families are almost equally headed by single parents and married couples.

As illustrated in figure 3, household composition of families in the struggling lower-middle class varies substantially from the household composition of families in poverty. Of families with income below the federal poverty level (FPL) (approximately 7.1 million families), 70 percent are headed by a single parent (61 percent are single female parents), 24 percent are headed by a married couple with one or two earners, and 6 percent are headed by a married couple with no earners.

The composition of the struggling lower-middle class—defined here as working-age families with children under age eighteen whose income places them between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL—is markedly different from families in poverty in terms of marriage and presence of earners. Of families in the struggling lower-middle class (approximately 11.4 million families), 44 percent are headed by a single parent (34 percent are single female parents), 27 percent are headed by a single-earner married couple, another 27 percent are headed by a dual-earner married couple, and 2 percent are headed by a married couple with no earners.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

4. Nearly one out of two families in the struggling lower-middle class is headed by an adult who has attended college.

College attainment differs markedly by poverty status. As illustrated in figure 4, 33 percent of household family heads below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) attended at least some college, although just 6 percent of those family heads have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Among household family heads with income between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL, 48 percent have attended some college, and14 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In stark contrast to those living at or below 250 percent of the FPL, 77 percent of household family heads above 250 percent of the FPL attended at least some college, and about half have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only a very small share of this group (4 percent) did not earn a high school diploma.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

5. Nearly one-third of struggling lower-middle-class families rely on income support from a government program.

A majority of working-age families with children living below the federal poverty level (FPL) receive federal transfer programs. Of the families that rely on at least one government transfer program, almost all receive food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Federal transfer programs are not just for the very poor, however. As shown in figure 5, approximately 33 percent of families with incomes between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL depend on at least one government transfer program for income support. SNAP is by far the most prevalent transfer program for this group, with 21 percent of these families (approximately 2.4 million families) depending on SNAP for food assistance at some point during the year. It is important to note that families only receive benefits when their income is low, such as during spells of unemployment, but not in months when their income is higher than SNAP’s income threshold of 130 percent of the FPL. This highlights the role of SNAP in supporting families through temporary downturns, and the short-term dependence on the program for many beneficiaries.

Figure 5 shows only the share of families who depend on various transfer programs in a single year; a much larger share will rely on transfers at some point in their lives. For example, while in any given year most Americans will not have to rely on food stamps—approximately 17 percent of children under age eighteen participated in SNAP in 2007 before the Great Recession—between the ages of twenty and sixty-five, more than half of Americans will receive SNAP benefits (Leftin and Wolkwitz 2009; Rank and Hirschl 2005; U.S. Census Bureau 2008). In addition to these transfer programs, tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), are important sources of income support for low- to moderate- income families. These two programs transferred 59 billion and nearly 57 billion dollars, respectively, in 2012 (The Joint Committee on Taxation 2013).

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

Chapter 2: The Struggling Lower-Middle Class, Food Insecurity, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Similar to families living in poverty, many families in America’s struggling lower-middle class are not comfortably able to afford a sufficient diet. Food insecurity in households with children is widespread, existing in every state. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves a fundamental role in mitigating food insecurity and providing food assistance to both poor and struggling lower-middle-class families.

6. Roughly 40 percent of children in the struggling lower-middle class experience food insecurity or obesity, or both.

Children from low-income households have high rates of food insecurity or obesity, or both. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies a household as food insecure when it has limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (USDA 2000).

Figure 6 illustrates the differing nutritional circumstances of children based on their family’s income. More than 10 percent of children in households below the federal poverty level (FPL) are both food insecure and obese, and more than 50 percent have at least one of these conditions. Unfortunately, children in the struggling lower-middle class—children whose family income places them between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL—more closely resemble children in poverty than they do children in higher-income groups (above 250 percent of the FPL). More than 24 percent of children (or approximately 1.7 million children) in the struggling lower-middle class are food insecure and approximately 23 percent are obese; almost 7 percent of these children simultaneously face both obesity and food insecurity. In stark contrast, approximately 85 percent of children (or more than 9.3 million children) living above 250 percent of the FPL face neither challenge. These statistics highlight the diverging nutritional conditions of children by socioeconomic status.

Food insecurity, especially among children, is particularly worrisome given the potential negative effects of hunger during childhood. Indeed, literature in economics and medicine has documented the importance of early-life events, such as nutrition, on adult outcomes such as earnings and mortality (Almond and Currie 2011). Almond, Hoynes, and Schanzenbach (2011) found that during the initial rollout of the program in the 1960s children whose families had access to food stamps while they were in utero and during their childhoods had higher birth weight overall. Recent academic research has also shown that individuals who had access to food stamps had markedly better long-run health (as measured by self-reported health status, obesity, and reported diagnoses of diabetes and other chronic conditions) than individuals who did not have access to food stamps (Hoynes, Schazenbach, and Almond 2012). Among women, this study also found that access to food stamps during childhood improved adult economic outcomes, ranging from increased likelihood of attaining a high school diploma and higher lifetime earnings, to reduced likelihood of being reliant on federal safety-net programs during adulthood.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

7. More than one in five children faces food insecurity in thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia.

Food insecurity exists everywhere in the United States, with more than 16 percent of individuals living in households reporting conditions indicating food insecurity. The share of children living in food-insecure households, approximately 22 percent, is even higher. The highest rates of child food insecurity in the country are found in New Mexico and Washington, DC, where roughly three out of ten children live in households that are food insecure. Even in North Dakota, the most food-secure state in the country, one in ten children is food insecure. Furthermore, in thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia more than one child in five is food insecure, as represented in figure 7.

There are regional patterns with regard to child food insecurity: the most food-insecure states are consistently located in the South and the West. Indeed, with the exception of Ohio, all of the states with child food insecurity rates above 25 percent are located in these two regions.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

8. Nearly 90 percent of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients live in a household with at least one child, one disabled individual, or one elderly individual.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) caseload overwhelmingly comprises families with at least one child, one disabled individual, or one elderly individual. As illustrated in figure 8, 87 percent of SNAP participants in 2011 lived in such a household. The remaining 13 percent of participants lived either in single-person or multiple-person households that did not include at least one child, one disabled individual, or one elderly individual.

SNAP participants who are aged eighteen to forty-nine, who are not disabled, and who do not live with children are commonly referred to as able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs; they constitute roughly 10 percent of SNAP participants (Lee 2013). Most, but not all, of these ABAWDs are included within the 13 percent of participants in figure 8. (ABAWDS can be in the 87 percent if they themselves are able-bodied, aged eighteen to forty nine, and live with an elderly or disabled person, but with no children.) SNAP program rules typically require able-bodied adults aged eighteen to forty-nine to satisfy work requirements, however, and impose a time limit on the receipt of benefits for those who are not employed or in a work program at least half time. Some of these policies can be suspended for areas with high unemployment, and as a result, were suspended during the Great Recession in most of the country, but have begun to be reinstated throughout the country as the economy recovers.

Many of the participants (nearly 37 percent) live in single-parent households with at least one child, but a sizable share (more than 18 percent) live in households comprising married adults with at least one child (Strayer, Eslami, and Leftin 2012). In the year 2011 approximately 82 percent of SNAP participants lived at or below the FPL in the month of SNAP receipt, and these individuals received more than 91 percent of all monthly SNAP benefits (ibid.). In the same year, 45 percent of SNAP participants were children, and 9 percent were elderly individuals. SNAP’s benefit expenditures were proportional, with children receiving 44 percent of prorated SNAP benefits and elders receiving 7 percent (ibid.).

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

Chapter 3: The Struggling Lower-Middle Class, Taxes, and Transfer Programs

A variety of government tax and transfer programs augment the resources available to struggling lower-middle-class families. The phase-out of these transfer programs, however, makes it difficult for these families to work their way into a more stable economic life.

9. America’s tax and transfer system expands the middle class.

In the United States the system of taxes and transfers plays an important role in determining the amount of income a family ultimately has at its disposal. Taxes (such as federal and state income taxes, payroll taxes, and property taxes) typically reduce family income, but the federal tax system also provides credits (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit [EITC] and the Child Tax Credit [CTC]) that can increase the cash income for qualifying families.

Transfer program and targeted tax benefits protect families against economic hardship and supplement low earnings, which for some families could be zero. Some transfer programs provide cash payments, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI); others are in-kind programs, paying a nonmonetary benefit, such as a food voucher in the case of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Figure 9 illustrates how the tax and transfer system changes the distribution of income for working-age families with children. Before taxes and transfers, about 5 percent of families have no income, but this share falls to about 1 percent after accounting for taxes and transfers. Similarly, the share of families with income between $1 and $20,000 falls from over 16 percent to about 12 percent. On the other end of the income distribution, there are fewer families in all of the income groups at $80,001 and above. The direct effect of the tax and transfer system is to expand the middle class by compressing the number of families located at either end of the income distribution and raising the number of families in the middle range.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

10. Struggling lower-middle-class families depend on an array of tax and transfer benefits.

Families living in poverty and among the struggling lower-middle class have access to a number of income-support programs. The nature and level of support of these programs changes throughout the income distribution. For families below the federal poverty level (FPL), the major transfer programs are designed to provide for basic needs such as food and health care. In addition, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is designed to subsidize earnings. At higher levels of income, families have access to child-related tax credits and health insurance exchange subsidies implemented by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As shown in figure 10, struggling lower-middle-class families benefit from the EITC, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), among other tax and transfer benefits. For the single-parent family with two children illustrated in the figure, the total value of benefits falls from about $14,000 just below the FPL to about $7,500 at 250 percent of the FPL.

While these programs undoubtedly improve the economic security of low-income families, the programs’ impacts are not included in the official measure of poverty. A family’s official poverty status is based on pretax income, and thus does not include benefits received through the EITC or the Child Tax Credit (CTC), nor does it include in-kind transfers, such as food stamp benefits, Medicaid, or housing assistance. Consequently, official poverty estimates produced by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal little to policymakers about the effect of these programs on poverty and near-poverty rates. Additional measures of poverty are needed to reveal the impact of the social safety net on economic well-being in the United States (see Blank and Greenberg 2008; and Meyer and Sullivan 2012).

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

11. A low-income, single parent can face a marginal tax rate as high as 95 percent.

Marginal tax rates for low- and moderate-income families can be exceptionally high. Marginal tax rates are the taxes paid on additional work or investment. Effective marginal tax rates are determined by taxes paid, tax benefits received, and tax and transfer benefits lost due to extra income. For instance, as low- and moderate-income families see an increase in earnings, their transfer payments (such as Medicaid) and tax credits (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit [EITC]) are clawed back or phased out. This can raise effective marginal tax rates and make the after-tax return to additional earnings quite low.

In the absence of transfers, marginal tax rates tend to be low—and often negative—for low-income families. Through personal deductions or exemptions, the federal income tax code allows low-income families to exclude a substantial share of their income from taxation. In addition, refundable tax credits—tax credits that can drop a family’s tax bill below zero—often make marginal tax rates negative. For the hypothetical single parent with one child illustrated in figure 11, marginal tax rates including taxes, but not accounting for transfers, are around –40 percent, indicating that these taxpayers would receive an additional 40 cents for every extra dollar they earn. These marginal tax rates turn positive only at earnings of approximately $10,000.

The gap between the light and dark green lines in figure 11 shows the effects of transfer phase-outs on this particular taxpayer’s marginal tax rate. At the Medicaid limit, denoted by the first vertical black line, the phase-out of transfer benefits increases the taxpayer’s marginal tax rate by about 60 percentage points—from around –40 percent to about +20 percent. For this taxpayer, the impact of transfer phase-outs is dramatic and could discourage additional work that moves her earnings beyond roughly $8,000. Depending on family circumstances and program eligibility, there is a wide range of marginal tax rates facing low- and moderate-income households. As shown in this figure, a low-income, single parent can face a marginal tax rate as high as 95 percent.

Academic studies illustrate the complex impacts of tax and transfer programs on worker behavior. For example, the EITC has been shown to provide meaningful incentives for single parents with dependent children to work (Eissa and Liebman 1996; Meyer and Rosenbaum 2001). At the same time, however, the EITC tends to provide a disincentive for married mothers with children to work, since the combined income of a wife and husband reduces (and sometimes eliminates) a family’s EITC benefit (Eissa and Hoynes 2004a, 2004b).

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

12. The highest marginal tax rates tend to fall on the struggling lower-middle class.

Marginal tax rates—the tax collected on an additional amount of income or earnings—are often highest for families at or just above the federal poverty level (FPL). Low- to moderate-income families see an increase in marginal tax rates as their transfer payments (such as Medicaid) and tax credits (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit [EITC] are clawed back or phased out.

As shown in figure 12, marginal tax rates are highest for those families with income at or above the FPL. For example, 10 percent of families with earnings between 100 and 149 percent of the FPL have marginal tax rates of 60 percent or higher—meaning that these families keep 40 cents or fewer of each additional dollar they earn. For the poorest families and for those with incomes above 250 percent of the FPL, the top 10 percent of marginal tax rates fall around 35–45 percent.

Figure 12 also illustrates that there is far more variation in marginal tax rates for families near the FPL than for families farther from it. This disparity is primarily due to the varying eligibility for transfer programs. Families that qualify for transfer programs will often lose their benefits if they earn additional income, while ineligible families face lower marginal tax rates because they do not have any benefits to lose. As a result, families with earnings higher up on the income distribution, who as a group tend to be ineligible for transfer programs, experience less variation in marginal tax rates.

High marginal tax rates for some low-income families are a byproduct of safety-net programs that aim to provide means-tested benefits—benefits aimed at low-income families—to the most vulnerable households. An unfortunate consequence is that some low-income households have little incentive to work because they risk losing significant benefits as they move up the income distribution.

High marginal tax rates can make the after-tax return to additional earnings quite low. This low return to work means that, ultimately, families with high marginal tax rates have limited ability to improve their own well-being.

chapter 20 case study food for a low income family

Compared to families living in poverty, families in the struggling lower-middle class are more likely to be headed by a married couple, to have a second adult worker, and to be headed by an individual with some college education. Those in the struggling lower-middle class still face many of the same challenges as those in poverty, however, including food insecurity and a reliance on government programs for income support.

There are programs in place to assist the struggling lowermiddle class. In fact, nearly one-third of these families rely on at least one government transfer program for income support in any given year. For both the struggling lower-middle class and families living in poverty, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is by far the most prevalent program. Low-income families benefit from an array of tax credits and transfer programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Medicaid. The phase-out of these programs at near-poverty levels of income leads to high marginal tax rates on low- to moderate-income families, however, lessening the return to work and making economic security more difficult for working families to achieve.

This policy paper presents a snapshot of America’s struggling lower-middle-class families and highlights their challenges with food insecurity and with barriers to work that are inadvertently created through the tax and transfer system. An important next step is to identify policies that can improve the well-being of these families.

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    CHART 1: DEFINITION OF LOW- VS. HIGHER-INCOME HOUSEHOLDS IN THIS REPORT > Federal Poverty Line Household Income > $44,700 2011 Federal Poverty Line: $22,350 for a family of four ≤200% Federal Poverty Line Household Income < $44,700

  17. Food to the Rescue: Daily Table—Rescuing Food and Creating ...

    Case Study Food to the Rescue: Daily Table—Rescuing Food and Creating Better Alternatives for Low-Income Families A nonprofit business model that addresses food waste and healthy food...

  18. Well-Being and Stability among Low-income Families: A 10-Year Review of

    For low-income families, in particular, the lack of some or all of these dimensions can be severely detrimental to their well-being since this could lead to poverty. Such a direct link between lack of well-being and poverty can ultimately lead to family instability. In this paper, we will review select research findings of the past decade ...

  19. Mobility Strategies and Food Shopping for Low-Income Families: A Case Study

    Hillier, Cannuscio, Karpyn, McLaughlin, Chilton, and Glanz (2011) find that low-income parents travel further than other low-income groups to shop for food. Clifton (2004), in a case study ...

  20. A Dozen Facts about America's Struggling Lower-Middle-Class

    Many families in America's struggling lower-middle class—defined to include those with income between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or between roughly $15,000 and $60,000 ...

  21. PDF A Family Case Study: How Money Might Matter for Academic Learning

    A family case study: How money might matter for academic learning. Global Education Review, 1 (2), 26-40. A Family Case Study: How Money Might Matter for Academic Learning Catherine Compton-Lilly University of Wisconsin Madison Abstract Many children living in low-income communities do not face struggles in school. Many learn quickly and easily.

  22. Ch 20 Case Study Food For A Low Income Family

    Ch 20 Case Study Food For A Low Income Family - Essay, Research paper, Coursework, Powerpoint Presentation, Discussion Board Post, Research proposal, Term paper, Dissertation, Questions-Answers, Case Study, Dissertation chapter - Literature review, Literature Review, Response paper, Rewriting, Dissertation chapter - Methodology, Thesis, Book ...

  23. Ch 20 Case Study Food For A Low Income Family Quizlet

    Advocate Educational Integrity. Our service exists to help you grow as a student, and not to cheat your academic institution. We suggest you use our work as a study aid and not as finalized material. Order a personalized assignment to study from. Ch 20 Case Study Food For A Low Income Family Quizlet -.