Is the Recession Over for the Poorest Americans?

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Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesDinner at a New Jersey soup kitchen.

Happy days are here again! (Or are they?)

For the third month in a row, America's unemployment rate remained below 6 percent, according to this month's Bureau of Labor Statistics report on November jobs data. Even better, the fact that payrolls grew by 321,000 jobs -- with no downtick in the unemployment rate -- tells us that more Americans must be returning to the labor market.

That's great news for the middle class. And now here's some good news for Americans still struggling to get into the middle class: The percentage of Americans who say they're struggling just to put food on the table has dropped to its lowest level since President Barack Obama took office.

The Magic Number

We won't keep you in suspense: 17.2. That's the percentage of Americans who say they "struggled to afford food in [the] past year," according to a recent poll conducted by Gallup.

Gallup suggested a few trends that could be helping to solve the problem of hunger in America, noting that (in line with November's unemployment data) "fewer Americans are unemployed or underemployed in 2014" than were in recent years. Also, gas prices have taken a tumble with the recent collapse in world oil prices. The fact that it now costs less money to fill up the tank may be freeing up more dollars that consumers can use to buy food.

Whatever's behind the news, Gallup observes that it's "a positive sign that the economic recovery now could be reaching those who previously struggled to afford the basics." Moreover, says the pollster, "while food prices increased more in the first six months of 2014 than they did for all of 2013, this does not appear to be resulting in more Americans struggling to afford food."

So... unalloyed good news all around. And yet, amidst our jubilation, we have to ask: When 17.2 percent of Americans still struggle to put food on the table, is that improvement really good enough?

Over Here, Over There

We all know that globally, hunger is a problem -- in the developing world. One person in nine -- 805 million people -- lacks "enough food to lead a healthy active life," according to World Food Programme statistics. Two-thirds of these people live in Asia, while sub-Saharan Africa is the region where hunger is most prevalent. But what about non-developing countries? What about the so-called "first world," the one in which we live?

Comparisons among first-world countries are not easy, because different governments and organizations use different standards for what constitutes "hunger." But we can still make an attempt.

For example, we know that even after our recent improvement, nearly one in five Americans still worries about going to bed hungry at night. In contrast, an estimated 10.6 percent of our first-world peers in Europe could not "afford a meal with meat, chicken, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every second day," according to 2013 data from European Union statistics agency Eurostat.

A Rough Comparison

Eurostat's definition for measuring hunger differs from that used by Gallup. But according to Eurostat, this is the criterion the agency considers indicative of "people whose living conditions are severely affected by a lack of resources." So the definition appears at least analogous to, if not 100 percent equal to, Gallup's "struggled to afford food" standard.

If we assume at least a rough equivalency between the two standards, then according to Eurostat's data, America's hunger rate of 17.2 percent suggests we're doing a better job of feeding our poorest citizens than are the governments of Lithuania, Latvia or Bulgaria, where hunger afflicts 19 percent, 23.3 percent and 51.1 percent of the populations, respectively. But we're still worse off than the folks in Poland or Estonia -- or any of the countries usually considered part of Western Europe (Germany, France, the U.K. or any of the Scandinavian nations).

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no financial interest in any companies or organizations mentioned above. Nor does the Motley Fool. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.