Alec Rhodes

Ohio State University
2020

“My experience in the Scholars in Aging program contributed to my professional development and supplemented my academic training as a sociologist.”

Hunger is a widespread and growing form of economic hardship experienced by older adults in the United States. In 2016 around 13.6% of the population aged 60 and older were food insecure, an increase of 27 percent since 2001. (1) Prior research indicates that lack of wealth is a key barrier to food security and is more strongly associated with food insecurity than income among older adults. (2) I spent my semester in the Ohio Scholars in Aging program investigating the causal mechanisms underlying the relationship between food insecurity and housing wealth, the primary source of wealth among older Americans.

I completed a research-based practicum at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs and College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University, under the mentorship of Drs. Cäzilia Loibl, Donald Haurin, and Stephanie Moulton. We used data from the Health and Retirement Study to document trends in food insecurity and housing wealth and debts among older adults from 2000-2016; to identify the causal effects of changes in housing wealth and new mortgage borrowing on food insecurity; and to simulate how realistic policy changes might impact rates of food insecurity in the older adult population. In addition, we examined whether inequalities in housing wealth and access to credit contribute to disparities in food insecurity by race. Our project was funded with a grant from the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research.

Our preliminary results suggest that older adults draw on housing wealth through new mortgage borrowing to address food insecurity. We find that new mortgage borrowing reduces the probability of food insecurity among older adult homeowners. However, the effects of new mortgage borrowing on food insecurity are stronger among white than black homeowners, likely due to racial disparities in income, home equity, and financial wealth. (3) The results underscore the critical role of housing wealth as a buffer against economic hardship in late adulthood, and highlight the importance of policies that promote access to housing wealth and credit.

My experience in the Scholars in Aging program contributed to my professional development and supplemented my academic training as a sociologist. First, my practicum offered opportunities to conduct myriad forms of statistical analysis, improve my data management skills, and learn how to participate in interdisciplinary research. My practicum also exposed me to innovative methodological approaches, including causal identification using instrumental variable approaches. The monthly sessions with aging professionals at the Ohio Department of Aging contextualized my research within the broader context of issues around aging, well-being, and public policy in the State of Ohio. I aim to incorporate these new perspectives on policy issues into my research on aging and economic insecurity going forward.

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1 Ziliak, J.P., Gundersen, C., 2018. The state of senior hunger in America 2016. Chicago, IL: Feeding America.
2 Ziliak, J.P., Gundersen, C., Haist, M., 2008. The causes, consequences, and future of senior hunger in America. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, Center for Poverty Research.
3 Rugh, J.S., Massey, D.S., 2010. Racial Segregation and the American Foreclosure Crisis. American Sociological Review 75, 629-651.