Authors’ note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to using identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this issue brief, the terms are used interchangeably.
Disability and food insecurity have a close and well-documented1 relationship. Inequities in economic opportunity for disabled people have made disability a key factor in predicting vulnerability to food insecurity;2 in turn, increased food insecurity is also associated with higher rates of disabilities related to chronic illness.3
This issue brief provides background on long-standing barriers to food security and access for disabled people in the United States. It then discusses the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts and highlights disability and community organizations’ solutions to these issues. Finally, it provides recommendations for the federal government to alleviate food insecurity in the disability community, including by expanding the definition of disability for anti-poverty programs, disaggregating data to include disability in hunger and food systems research, increasing federal funding to target food insecurity, and expanding and making permanent the online food purchasing pilot program4 in all states.
Centering the experiences of community organizations that have worked to meet people’s basic needs on a day-to-day basis—coupled with necessary policy changes at the federal level—is essential to beginning to address hunger in the disability community, both during and after the pandemic.
How the federal government currently addresses food insecurity
The federal government has several large-scale programs to directly address food insecurity, the most widely known of which are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). SNAP serves almost 41.5 million people in about 21.6 million households,5 and WIC serves more than 6 million people.6
Barriers to food security for disabled people
Even before the pandemic, disabled people faced numerous barriers to accessing food, most commonly including high unemployment rates, low wages, restrictions around eligibility for social safety net programs, and physical and transportation barriers.
Following the onset of the pandemic, disabled people have seen significantly lower employment rates than nondisabled people. During the height of one of the first COVID-19 spikes in 2020, disabled people’s employment rate fell to 17.9 percent,7 translating to an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent8—a seven-year high.9 In contrast, people without disabilities experienced an employment rate of 61.8 percent and an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent during the same time period.10
Wages earned by disabled workers for every dollar earned by nondisabled workers
People with disabilities also earn significantly lower wages, with U.S. disabled workers earning 87 cents to every dollar11 earned by nondisabled workers. Moreover, this figure does not include workers who receive 14c wages12—an exception under the Fair Labor Standards Act allowing some employers to pay disabled employees subminimum wages—which, on average, amount to $3.34 per hour.13 Even when compensated fairly, disabled people may still remain food insecure due to the extra expenses related to having a disability.14
Programs such as SNAP and Supple
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