Being aware: New survey shows that teens in poverty more likely to go without food than their siblings

A survey of about 1,500 extremely disadvantaged families in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio shows teenagers go without food twice as often as their younger brothers and sisters.

Parents first deprive themselves, skipping meals to feed their children. But if there still isn’t enough for everyone, parents will feed younger children before teenagers, regularly leaving the older kids—teen boys in particular—without enough to eat.

“If you’re really poor, you try to sacrifice yourself first, but when you’re forced to make some choices, these parents are deciding to let the teens not have enough—if they have to give up on something, they’re giving up on teenagers,” says Robert Moffitt, professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “It’s hard to imagine parents having to do that.”

(Credit: Johns Hopkins)

Moffitt and coauthor David C. Ribar of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research analyzed analyzed the survey, which asked about missed meals for parents and a child, checking in with the families several times over six years, from 1999 to 2005.

The families had incomes well below the federal poverty line, making an average of about $1,558 a month, or $18,696 a year. Most were headed by single parents who were unemployed, on welfare, and not college-educated. Most were members of minorities and were raising children in rental homes.

Researchers found 12 percent of the adults in these disadvantaged families suffered from extreme food hardship, answering “yes” to several of the screening questions.

At the same time, about 4 percent of the children went hungry. About 6 percent of children up to 5 years of age weren’t getting enough to eat, and slightly older children, those up to age 11, fared about the same. But with children 12 to 18, nearly 12 percent of them regularly went hungry. Of those older kids, boys suffered the most; 14 percent didn’t get enough food, compared to 10 percent of girls.

Parents are likely choosing to feed babies and toddlers, whose nutritional needs seem more urgent and whose food tends to be less expensive, Moffitt says. It’s unclear, however, why teenage boys go hungry more often than teenage girls. Moffitt suspects it could have something to do with older boys being out of the house more and their needing more calories.

Even among the very poor, different levels of hunger within households wasn’t as evident in families who routinely sat down for meals together. Also, if food scarcity was caused by short-term financial strain, like job loss or illness, all children in the house were fed equally again as soon as the parents were able to find money or get back to work.

“The numbers were really surprising and discouraging,” Moffitt says. “So many low-income families were experiencing this, and that was before the Great Recession. Now numbers are likely even worse.”


Bottom Line for Mentors and Programs

This research highlights an additional aspect of the mentee experience of which programs and mentors should be cognizant. Research has shown that lack of nutrition can affect youth and teens in a variety of ways, from influencing their educational outcomes to their physical health and development.

As a mentor or mentoring program, you have the opportunity to observe your mentee over time. This puts you in a good position to catch any of the warning signs of malnourishment, including  dramatic weight loss, signs of food insecurity (coming to school hungry, saving food to eat later, or not having food for lunch), and chronic tiredness or inability to focus.

While these behaviors may be due to a variety of causes, not all as harmful as malnutrition, should you notice these or other symptoms, have a frank discussion with your mentee to determine the issue. Identifying the problem can help you or your program work with the appropriate parties to ensure that your mentee has access to the resources and support they need to thrive.