11/11/2011 08:49 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

Americans' Ability To Feed Their Families Nears 3-Year Low: Gallup

The country might be in a recovery, but it surely doesn't feel that way to the large number of American households struggling to put food on the table.

A Gallup survey published Thursday found that as of October, only 79.8 percent of people in the U.S. always had enough money to buy food for themselves or for their families in the past year, while over 20 percent did not. Not since November 2008, during the depths of the recession, has the country dealt with that level of food insecurity.

The poll is just one piece of evidence amongst many that although the economy has grown modestly over the past year, millions of people are still unable to achieve a basic level of security. Unemployment is high, wages are essentially flat -- and stalled around a median of just $26,364 -- and opportunities are hard to find for many.

Gallup's findings arrive just days after a recent Census measure showed that a record 49.1 million Americans now live in poverty. Most of those people -- accounting for about 15 percent of the country's population -- are on food stamps, according to NPR.

As of 2010, more than 48 million Americans, including 17 million children, lived in food-insecure households, according to the Center for American Progress. The social costs of such widespread hunger -- as measured in health care expenses, lost productivity and charitable donations to keep people fed -- come to $167.5 billion, or $542 for every person in the U.S., according to a report.

And the problem isn't limited to cities. Hunger has increasingly become a problem among the suburban middle class, as mounting debt and vanishing jobs have shaken more and more people loose from positions of economic security, according to USA Today.

The Gallup poll also found that the proportion of Americans able to afford general basic necessities -- including food, shelter and health care -- has fallen to just 81.2 percent, the lowest level since Gallup first started tracking the data in January 2008.

This means that more people lack access to basic needs now than during the official span of the Great Recession, which economists define as having ended in mid-2009.

That in turn might account for why Americans have such a bleak outlook on the national economy, with nine out of 10 people under the impression that the country is still in a recession, according to The Washington Post.