More Than Half Of Americans Didn't Dine Out Last Year: Census

More than half of all Americans say they've recently gone a year without dining out, in what may be one of the clearest reflections yet of how the listless economy is restricting choices for consumers.

Only 49.3 percent of adults say they "dined out" between fall 2009 and fall 2010, according to recently released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That's the lowest percentage since 2007, when just 48.7 percent of adults said they had dined out in the past year.

As Seattle Weekly points out, there's some uncertainty over what "dining out" means. The Census doesn't define the term for survey participants, and it's possible many of them interpreted it in a specific way -- for example, dinner at a restaurant with table service -- when broader definitions exist.

The National Restaurant Association, Seattle Weekly found, counts fast-food restaurants and hot dogs purchased at concerts in the same general "dining out" category as, say, places with a wine list.

Still, the Census results indicate that more than half of all Americans, whether out of necessity or by choice, aren't indulging in a luxury that the financially comfortable take for granted -- findings that track with what is already known about the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States, and the grim financial situations in which millions of people find themselves as the economy continues to founder.

For many people, the extra cash simply isn't there for something like a meal at a restaurant or a night at the movies. Thanks to unemployment, stagnant incomes and a recession that wiped out millions of dollars in individuals' net worth, the average American has $1,315 less in disposable income than she did in 2008, meaning that more people have to be careful about prioritizing their spending. According to recent figures, half of all Americans with jobs made less than $27,000 last year, a figure that may not leave much room for treats like a night out.

And for some, not being able to eat at a restaurant is less of a pressing a problem than not having the money to buy groceries.

A recent Gallup poll found that almost one in five Americans struggled to put food on the table in the past year, and another survey published over the summer found that the number of people with access to basic life necessities like food, shelter and medical care -- a number that took a hit in 2008, with the onset of the financial crisis -- still had not recovered to pre-recession levels.

And in 2010, it was estimated that there were 48.8 million people in America who were hungry or food-insecure -- an increase of 12 million, or a full 33 percent, since 2007 -- and that the combined social costs of so much hunger added up to $167.5 billion for the year, or $542 for every person in the United States.