If economy is reviving, why are more Americans struggling to afford food?

Official statistics show a US economy in recovery, but 1 in 5 people in a new poll still say that there have been times in the last 12 months when they didn't have enough money to buy food.

Jae C. Hong/AP
In a Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 photo, A man kisses his 2-year-old daughter, who relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) while waiting for his wife outside a WIC office, in Los Angeles, in Oct. 2013.

Despite official signs of economic recovery in the US, more Americans struggled to afford food in 2013 than in 2012.

That news, delivered by a Gallup poll released Friday, is the latest reminder that America’s revival from a deep recession is a slow one – and that some measures of economic distress can remain high even as other gauges show improvement.

Gallup asked a large sampling of US adults if there have been times in the past 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food that they or their families needed.

Nearly 1 in 5 said yes.

Some 18.9 percent of poll respondents said they had struggled to afford food, a nationwide total that compares with 18.2 percent in 2012 and 17.8 percent in 2008 (the lowest rate recorded since Gallup began asking the question in that year).

By that measure, hunger in America appears to be edging up rather than down.

A caveat about the polling is potentially important, though. The distance between the 2013 Gallup figure and 2012 (or 2008) is basically encompassed in the poll’s margin of error of 1 percentage point.

Gallup’s ongoing survey is large one, with about 500 people being asked the question each day. Still, the “margin of error” estimate means the pollsters estimate that imperfect sampling could mean that actual numbers are about 1 percentage point higher or lower than what the poll found.

At the very least, though, the poll can be viewed as evidence that hunger in America is persisting, despite an improving job market.

An official barometer of “food insecurity” tracked by the US Department of Agriculture shows a somewhat smaller level of hunger than the Gallup poll. The latest USDA annual report, using Census data, finds that 14.5 percent of Americans in 2012 “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.”

The USDA estimates that challenges were most severe for some 6 percent of households with “very low” food security.

Although the USDA and Gallup totals for 2012 differ, the two surveys are consistent in saying that the rate of food insecurity appears to have changed little between 2008 and 2012. And the Gallup result extends that conclusion into 2013.

Part of the explanation may be what people see at the grocery checkout: rising food prices. Since 2008, food in general has become nearly 15 percent more expensive, according to government inflation figures. Hourly wage rates have edged up faster than overall US inflation over that time (3.7 percent real growth), but many households have seen their incomes stagnate or decline.

Another factor may be that improvements in the job market have been benefiting upper and middle-class families more than the poorest Americans. But unemployment rates have been falling substantially over the past year for people with little education as well as for more educated workers.

Hunger levels vary considerably by state. In general, southern states have the highest share of residents who struggled to afford food at some time (led by 25.1 percent in Mississippi). The percentage is lower than average in northern states from Maine to Washington and Alaska, which is lowest in the nation with an 11 percent “yes” response in the poll.

Amid controversy over the growth in food-stamp ranks in recent years, Congress recently passed a farm bill that included cuts of about $8 billion from food assistance programs over the next decade. That’s a small share of the food-stamp budget. But because of the way the cuts are targeted, they have a significant impact on about 850,000 households.

Many economists say a vital part of any solution must be an improved overall economy, with growth in jobs and wages.

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