Where Is the Help for Single People Who Are Going Hungry During COVID?
Food insecurity is a bigger problem for singles, but they are less likely to get help
Even before the nationwide lockdowns, there were far too many people in the U.S. with not enough to eat. The pandemic has exacerbated that disturbing reality. More single than married people are suffering. Single people typically have far less money than married people, for a variety of reasons including discriminatory practices written into the laws of the land. But the big financial disadvantage of unmarried Americans is not the only reason they are more likely to go hungry.
Single People Are Less Likely to Have Enough to Eat than Married People
Since April, the Census Bureau has been conducting a weekly Household Pulse Survey to learn how people are faring during the pandemic. The number of participants varies each week, but as an example, for the week of June 11–16, more than 1.2 million households were sent invitations to participate by email or text message, and more than 73,000 responded.
During the week of May 14–19, participants were asked, “In the last 7 days, which of these statements best describes the food eaten in your household?” They were classified as not having enough food if they selected “sometimes not enough to eat” or “often not enough to eat.”
For adults with no children, there was a striking difference between those who were and were not married. Four percent of the married people said they did not have enough food. More than three times as many single people, 13%, said the same thing.
Not Enough to Eat: Households with No Children
4% married, no children
13% not married, no children
For those who did have children, the married-people households were again more likely to be spared from hunger. Ten percent of those households did not have enough to eat. More than twice as many single-person households, 22%, did not have enough to eat.
Not Enough to Eat: Households with Children
10% married with children
22% single with children
Participants were also asked whether they were worried about the coming month. They were classified as confident about food going forward if they said they were either moderately or very confident that their household would be able to afford the kinds of food they need in the next four weeks.
Comparing the married and unmarried households without children, more married people than unmarried people thought they would be fine, 79% compared to 65%.
Confident They Would Be Able to Afford Food in the Next Four Weeks: Households with No Children
79% married, no children
65% not married, no children
For the households with children, two-thirds of the married couple households thought they would be able to afford the food they needed in the coming month. The single-parent households were by far the most vulnerable: fewer than half, 46%, felt confident that they be fine in the next four weeks.
Confident They Would Be Able to Afford Food in the Next Four Weeks: Households with Children
67% married with children
46% single with children
Why Did the Unmarried and Married People Go Hungry?
The Institute for Family Studies (IFS), a reliably pro-marriage group, drew from the data from the Census Bureau survey in their report of the findings described above. They also explored the question of why the single people were more likely to go hungry.
In the Census data, the unmarried people, on the average, had lower incomes, less education, and were more likely to have lost a job during the pandemic. But even when the IFS took those factors into account (by statistically comparing married and single people who were equivalent on those factors, as well as other factors such as age, gender, race, and number of children), the single people were still more likely to say that they were going hungry during the pandemic.
In the Census survey, participants were shown a list of possible reasons for why they did not have enough to eat. The IFS described the responses only for households that included children and only if they did not have enough to eat in the previous seven days. (Participants could check more than one reason, so the percentages add up to more than 100.)
The most obvious answer — they couldn’t afford to buy more food — was by far the most important answer. An identical percentage of married parents and single parents, 80%, gave that answer.
Also equally important to both the married and unmarried parents was the available selection of food. An identical 20% of both groups said, “the stores didn’t have the food I wanted.”
There was one reason married parents gave more often than single parents, 20% compared to 15%: “Afraid or didn’t want to go out to buy food.” It would have been interesting to see those two components answered separately. Did married-parent households more often go hungry because they just didn’t want to go out to buy food?
Two of the reasons were more often endorsed by single parents than married parents. More of the single parents said they “couldn’t get out to buy food,” 14% compared to 8%.
More of the single parents also said that they “couldn’t get groceries or meals delivered,” 10% compared to 6%.
Those were the only answers described by the IFS. But they were not the only dynamics explored in the Census survey.
Implicit in the IFS article, I think, is the suggestion that the people in married-couple households are less likely to go hungry because married people are more virtuous than single people. “Marriage,” they said, “clearly plays an important role in protecting children and families from hunger.” On my copy of the article, I crossed out “marriage” and wrote in “discrimination.”
Is More Free Food Available to Married than Unmarried People?
When it became apparent early on in the COVID-19 lockdown that many people were going hungry, I explored opportunities to donate to local organizations addressing that problem. The first two I considered, a food bank and one other, only described programs for children and families and seniors on their websites. I contacted both organizations to ask whether they helped single adults who could not afford food but were not parents and were not seniors. One never answered my multiple inquiries. The food bank assured me that they did make their food available to single adults.
I made donations to the food bank for a few months. Then when I went to their website a few days ago, the only donation button was for a program to provide lunches to children. I think that’s a worthy program, but I wanted the food I was paying for to be available to single adults, too. I contacted them again, and they provided me with a work-around.
Apparently, my experience was not a fluke. The Census Bureau reported some intriguing findings from their Household Pulse Survey that the Institute of Family Studies did not mention:
“Although they were more likely than married self-employed individuals to report insufficient food, single self-employed individuals were less likely to receive free groceries or a free meal.”
For example, in states where businesses were hardest hit by the pandemic, only 8.9% of self-employed single adults had received a free meal or free groceries in the previous week. Nearly twice as many self-employed married people, 17.2%, had received free food, even though a smaller percentage of married than single people were going hungry.
If hearts go out more readily to children than adults, that’s understandable. But why are married people more often the recipients of largesse than people who are single? Single people have less money than married people; if they live alone, they do not benefit from the economies of scale, so their expenses are proportionately greater; and they do not have the income of a spouse as a back-up if they get laid off, if their hours are cut, or if they lose their jobs.
Digging Deeper and Taking Action
In Baltimore, Maryland, Ellen Worthing was noticing some of the same kinds of examples of possible singlism in food distribution that I had observed in Santa Barbara, California. But she went after the issue far more systematically than I did. She researched the many food distribution options in her area and who was served by each one. She figured out how many households were left mostly unserved by those programs. She also studied relevant legislation. Then she did something remarkable — she made her case to the relevant officials and persisted until changes were made.
For months, she had been telling me her story informally as it developed. I asked if she would write about her experience for interested readers, and I am so grateful that she agreed. I am in awe of what she accomplished. Here is her story. It was first published at my blog at Psych Central in July 2020.
It Shouldn’t Be So Hard for Single People to Get Food During a Pandemic. I Did Something about That.
By Ellen Worthing
I am a single adult who lives a quiet life in Baltimore, MD. As an older person I have had some health setbacks in the last few years, I have also had the flu three times during the winter of 2019–2020. When COVID first appeared at the shores of the United States I became very concerned. It wasn’t long before pandemic cases began appearing in Maryland and Baltimore City.
The city and state quickly enacted a stay at home order and I was more than willing participant, if staying away from other people would protect me. I quickly assessed how much food I had for the duration. I realized that I was safe in my home from the virus, but not at the grocery store. There are two grocery stores within walking distance of my home. I decided that interacting inside the supermarket could expose me to the virus.
Baltimore City began a food giveaway program in mid-March which delighted me. I read about their safe food distribution system and was impressed with the steps the city was taking to ensure food preparation and distribution was hygienic and protective.
However, as I scanned the city website on how to obtain food from the COVID food program I found that 42 distribution points at Recreation Centers and 17 distribution points at schools were reserved for servicing families with children. Only 7 distribution options were available to anyone who didn’t have children under the age of 18 living in their homes. The closest distribution site that I could access as a single person was 4 miles from my home. I don’t own a car. I did not relish the idea of riding on two buses each way which would potentially expose me to the COVID virus to the food distribution site, never mind that public transportation services had been limited during the stay at home order.
It was at this point I became concerned that not only was the city food distribution program not going to help me, but it won’t help the city residents that could benefit from it. I started to look at the numbers. Baltimore has a population of 593,000 residents. According to the US Census, we live in 221,000 total households. There are 58,000 households with children, that would qualify for the COVID food program at 59 out of the 66 food distribution points. The other 163,000 households would not qualify to receive food at most of the distribution sites. Baltimore has 23% of its population living below the federal poverty line as well as 3000+ people who are homeless.
I wanted to know more so I reviewed the city run food program. It turns out it was overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success. Apparently, this office wasn’t the least bit concerned about providing accessible healthy food to people without children. It was at this point I started writing emails and complaining. I have to give the Baltimore City government credit, they heard me and swiftly made changes to the program.
So why is it that local governments are much more concerned about providing families with children healthy food and services during times of crisis and ignoring all other adults? The answer lies with the federal government’s TANF program. Cities and states are allowed to tap into the Federal Government’s “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)” to fund food programs during the COVID Pandemic. In the first paragraph of its COVID rules TANF states, “TANF funds can only be spent on families with children –they cannot be used to provide support for single adults.”
There are almost no other federal government programs that fund food programs for adults during a pandemic crisis. After I communicate with the local government that many different people were at risk during this critical time, the city rightly opted to step in to fully fund what ultimately is an extremely successful food program, with much assistance from exceptional non-profits from the area as well as internationally.
We’re still in the middle of this pandemic. Baltimore was not the only city that had this food distribution challenge. The federal government is not making any effort to change its ways for the future so that all US residents have access to healthy food during the next crisis. Almost all people pay taxes. Single people pay more taxes than married couples with children. Yet, single Americans are ignored and marginalized by a federal government which is far more concerned about the health and well-being of those who live as a family than those who live in an ever-growing population of single adults.
About the Author
Ellen Worthing is a data specialist living in Baltimore, MD. She has worked on issues related to crime, homicides, police matters, bicycling. and marijuana decriminalization. She is an avid hiker and is also a local forest steward.
More Than Hunger
I believe that single people who are not seniors and who have no kids are, when needy, among the most neglected and underserved demographic in the nation. I think that going hungry is just one example. What if they are living in poverty and need income support? What if they have other kinds of needs? In the U.S., policymakers, activists, intellectuals, and empathic individuals of all stripes are attuned to the needs of seniors. They also care about families — they want you to know that. But what about single people who do not fit into those categories? Do you have examples of ways in which they are neglected? Or are there programs designed specifically for them that I just don’t know about? Please share your knowledge and wisdom.
[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. Finally, my “Single at Heart” blog that I have been writing for Psych Central since 2011 ended in 2020; I am updating many of those posts and moving them to this blog on Medium.]