In two-thirds of the U.S., especially bluer states in the Northeast, groceries are exempt from sales tax, the kind you’d pay when buying items like clothes and furniture. For those Americans, the idea that their fellow citizens could be paying taxes on food bought from grocery and convenience stores might seem totally alien. But in the states that allow them, grocery taxes can be a significant toll on poorer families—and a major contributor to whether they are food insecure.
In the first study to make a connection between the two, researchers concluded there’s a positive correlation between states that impose grocery taxes, and the probability of food insecurity among their lower-income residents. Around the country, 11.1% of all households—and 35.3% of poor households—are uncertain about consistent access to nutritious food (that’s worsened during the pandemic; an estimated 54 million people were insecure last October). Researchers also found that states debating to reduce or eliminate the tax would experience a sizable drop in food insecurity.
In 2020, 16 states had some form of grocery tax in place, at a national average of 4.2%. There was a 4% rate across most of Alabama, 4.5% in Oklahoma, and 6.5% in Kansas. In many states, counties and cities will add on further grocery taxes: In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, residents pay closer to an extra 10% total for every trip to the grocery store. The states with highest rates also tend to be the ones with the highest food insecurity: five of the seven most food-insecure states have a grocery tax. Though Louisiana doesn’t have a statewide tax, 45 of its 64 counties impose 4% or more—and those counties account for 77% of its poor residents.