“We’re doing pretty well, for poor people”

In a recent post, I began addressing the question of affordability, noting the high rate of food insecurity in the United States and wondering where our family fit compared to the rest of the nation. We have not been food-insecure for a number of years now, but I don’t think we’re so far from there that the idea is worth ignoring. It’s important to remember that while we seek access to better food, others seek access to food, period.

We’ll get back to that idea; but first, as they say, the numbers: what percentage of our income do we spend on groceries? That depends on what one counts as income. Looking strictly at wages, tips, and stipends, we earned about $13,000 as reported on our 2010 tax return. That puts us squarely in the bottom 20 percent of income-earners, and our $6500 grocery expense for the year is  50% of that income.

Counting non-taxable income and benefits paints quite a different picture, though. We have last year’s tax refund of $8,961; one year’s college grant money for two people in excess of tuition, $10,395; and the food benefits for the year of $6,500. Adding those to the “earned” income brings our total for the year to $38,875, boosting us all the way up to the third quintile of income. Our food spending for the year is “only” 16.7% of that total.

Those numbers seem all out of proportion to the CES data, don’t they? How could we possibly be spending so much? Steak and eggs for breakfast? Or is there something else going on with those numbers?

The CES data is based on something with the dystopian moniker of “Consumer Unit.” While the number of Consumer Units per quintile is very close, varying by less than 1%, the average number of actual people in each of these Units varies somewhat more, from 1.7 in the first to 3.1 in the fifth. This puts my numbers and theirs on a rather uneven footing, requiring correction, like so:

Average expenditure by Unit
Ave. number of people in Unit   =  expenditure per person.

Working with the data for the first and third quintiles, the two in which we would find ourselves, we wind up with annual per-person numbers like this:

Q1: $2,463/1.7 = $1,448.82
Q3: $3,355/2.5 = $1,342.00
Us: $6,500/5 = $1,300.00

So, the actual per-person expense is lower in the 3rd quintile than the first by $106, and we skate in at $42 below that. Interesting and reassuring. Is this a consistent pattern? Let’s have a look:

Q2: $2,999/2.3 = $1,303.93
Q4: $4,316/2.9 = $1,488.27
Q5; $5,629/3.1 = $1,815.80
And the United States average: $3,753/2.5 = $1,501.20. Again, the top quintile skews the average up.

Our results are even further askew, but in the other direction. Here’s a visual-both people per CU and food spending per capita together:

U.S. per-capita food spending compared with consumer unit size, 2009

We are the outliers, having both a higher number of persons in our “Consumer Unit” and a lower per-person food expenditure than any other group. Like I said, we’re doing pretty well for poor people.


About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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