The Hidden Hungry: Men in Poverty
Men often fall outside of gendered stereotypes of food assistance programs, failing to reflect nuanced experiences of hunger in the United States.
Hunger is a human experience, irrespective of gender, race, or ethnicity. Public policy directs resources to those deemed most vulnerable or most needy; in the case of hunger, they are mothers and children. This fuels stereotypes that other people are hungry through their own fault and hence somehow undeserving of assistance. When gender is overlaid on the stereotype, men can fall outside of definitions of vulnerability and deservedness, a stereotype particularly pervasive in caricatures of Black men. Race as part of the imagery of poverty is common. The gendered and racial implications of these stereotypes—and data on the gender of people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—do not reflect the nuanced experiences of hunger in the US.
And in the experience of Edmundite Missions in Alabama, these assumptions and stereotypes are incorrect.
Men Are the Primary Clients at an Alabama Nutrition Center
Edmundite Missions is a Catholic nonprofit that has been serving the Black Belt of the Deep South for the last 85 years. Food and nutrition are in its DNA; the first ministry of the two priests who created the Missions was to serve sandwiches out of the back door of the rectory in Selma, Alabama, because the hunger was so pervasive. Now at the Missions, the Bosco Nutrition Center serves 1000 meals a day to those living in deeply disadvantaged circumstances in Selma and nearby communities. Approximately 600 of these meals are served at our congregate dining hall.
As seen from our recent biennial census and annual surveys, an average of 69 percent of people who come to the dining hall for food are men (see Figure 1). Even during the pandemic, when the number of daily meals soared and service was take-away from the door of Bosco, nearly three quarters of those seeking food were men. And over half of those men depend on Bosco for both lunch and dinner seven days a week, 365 days a year.
In 2019, thinking that this was because of problems of access by women and children, the Missions made a concerted effort to take prepared hot meals to housing areas with concentrations of mothers and dependent children. Few people registered for the meals; fewer people came to pick them up. The fact that people did not participate in a program designated for women and children suggests that women and children are getting food elsewhere.
Who Are the Men Coming to the Bosco Nutrition Center?
The Missions has an extensive performance metrics system and regularly conducts in-person surveys of people in our programs.
The men who come to eat at Bosco are of many types and come from many conditions. The men who come to eat are under health stress. They are the elderly. They are widowers (Selma has one of the nation’s highest rates of death from diabetes and cardiovascular disease). They are formerly employed but now disabled, either from work accidents or from chronic disease. Over 80 percent of Selmians are Black, and Black men’s life expectancy is 8.2 years less than that of white men. In Dallas County, 70 percent of those on disability are between the ages of 18 and 64. In the experience of the Missions, the majority of these are men.
They are also employed. They are fast-food workers. They are employed in the “grey economy” of informal task-based cash earnings in car washing and lawn care. They are single fathers. They are even city workers. According to interviews we conducted with police, fire, and city officials during the summer of 2022, the Dallas County Deputy Sheriff makes $16 per hour, while a Selma fireman makes $35,000 per year, about half the national income average. The average wage for a starting Selma city worker is $9 per hour, or about $300 per week after taxes. The rent for an average one-bedroom apartment is $700 per month, more than half a single worker’s income. With Alabama taxing groceries at 10 percent, the accessibility of food becomes even more limited; employment and hunger are not mutually exclusive.
Why Is Men's Hunger So Pervasive in Selma?
First, the idea that some are deserving of assistance (and thus some are not) has led many efforts aimed at health, wellness, and nutrition to focus on children. Few would reasonably object to helping children, and hence government nutrition programs emphasizing children. Benefits go where the children are, whether that is food sent home from school, extra food stamp allowances from COVID, or breakfast bag programs. In our community, most of the homes are single parents with women caring for the children to whom the benefits are “attached,” making women the primary program beneficiaries. Only 28.06 percent of people in our community are married; most of those married men are likely to be married after age 65, meaning children are likely out of the home and these households are thus ineligible for nutrition programs that are focused on households with children. Hence, food assistance does not always reach men in Selma.
Second, requirements for food assistance further complicate the problem more so for men than they do for women. SNAP requires that adults without dependent children (recall that a lot of men who rely on Bosco are single, not in a household with children) must demonstrate employment of at least 20 hours per week; if they cannot, SNAP eligibility is limited to three months every three years. SNAP requirements for single individuals without children are barriers for many of the men who eat at Bosco either because they are not getting enough work hours as required to be on the program, or they work in the grey economy. To access available resources, people must also have documentation to verify need, such as pay stubs or original social security cards, which are frequently lost due to housing instability. Moreover, even though men have stable housing, they often lack access to groceries, have irregular utilities, or lack the capacity for safe food storage.
Third, even where there is recognition of men’s experience with hunger, there is not a robust network of organizations addressing the problem who can share information, best practices, and innovative approaches to address both hunger and health. Organizations should be careful not to replicate nutrition assistance programs’ near singular focus on children, nor their explicit assumption that women and children must always be grouped together. Organizations need to work to provide nutrition opportunities both for families and for single adults, including men and women.
Program Leadership Fails to Represent Participants
It is also important that program leadership reflects and represents participants. The men served by the Bosco Nutrition Center tend not to be “joiners” because the programs offered are not run by men; without that leadership, they do not feel welcome nor comfortable. When, however, we have created program opportunities for health and wellness that are run by men, we have many men come forward. Nutrition, health, and wellness need to be tied together in ways that men can relate to, led by men who area trusted within the community. In the Black community, especially in the Deep South, where the history of distrust of medicine dates back to the Tuskegee syphilis study and centuries before it, the role of Black men in leadership positions is critical to strengthening nutrition and wellness programs.
But trying to be responsive and innovative is, in fact, difficult because private philanthropy for men’s hunger and health issues, especially for Black men, is rare. That is in some ways a reflection of programs themselves – funding goes where programs are, and when programs are rare, so is money.
Expand Foundation Funding Beyond Women and Children
We examined the grantmaking of private foundations using the 2022 Foundation Center’s grants database. As illustrated in Figure 2, the number of foundations explicitly interested in poverty, hunger and/or heart disease in women far outnumber those in men. This is not to say that foundations should not fund women and children, but rather the aperture of the foundations’ expressed interests needs to be widened if funding for men’s programs is to be more robust.
As we as a nation grapple with improving the health and wellbeing of Americans, and as we continue to address hunger and nutrition, let us not fail to address equity in all its dimensions. Let us not fail to include men in and on the edge of poverty.