Hunger in America: Lies, damn lies and statistics

By Erik Jay
web posted September 11, 2000

In a series of reports issued over the last twelve months, the number crunchers of the Clinton Administration, led by the Census Bureau and Department of Agriculture, have concocted mesmerizing displays of questionable statistics that the media obligingly rebroadcast with an accompanying soundtrack of collectivist anecdotes and out-and-out lies.

In much the same way a B-movie hypnotist focuses his victim's attention on a shiny bauble while reaching the unguarded mind with powerful suggestions, the overtly political Keystone Bureaucrats of the most ethical administration in history and their powerful press pals are trying to convince already guilt-prone Americans to flagellate themselves over the terrible national scourge (TNS) of -- what's the TNS this week? -- oh, yes: hunger. Excuse me; I mean the terrible national scourge of hunger.

Now, nearly every time we're treated to a TNS story, critical thinking and every last remnant of reportorial disinterestedness become victims of defenestrated disinterestedness: objectivity goes out the window. In the myriad homeless TNS stories of the 1980's and early 90's, the media not only used figures made up by Mitch Snyder, an activist who admitted the fraud and subsequently committed suicide, but routinely portrayed only the most photogenic "victims"; Dan Rather and Bryant Gumbel mostly showed us mothers with toddlers, ignoring the embarrassing 75-80 per cent of street people with severe psychological problems, alcoholism and drug addiction. And, of course, the defenestrated disinterestedness resulted in the media sticking "NEWS" labels on editorials, with one late-80's crusading journalist going so far as to boast that ideology was more important that objectivity when it came to global warming, child abuse, and hunger. Much of the public continued to lap it all up.

But for careful readers, the pro spinners of the Associated Press went a little too far with this latest TNS story on hunger, particularly the way they summarized one Department of Agriculture report earlier this year: "Nearly 10 per cent of U.S. households are going hungry or don't have consistent access to adequate food, the Agriculture Department said Thursday. In New Mexico, 15.1 per cent of households were either hungry or threatened with hunger from 1996 to 1998, according to a USDA study..."

"Threatened with hunger"? "Consistent access to adequate food"? These aren't identifiable concepts or terms, these are political formulations, the kind of mind- and conscience-numbing lawyerese that works as both scaremonger and soporific. It sounds quite serious, but there's that calming bureaucratic reverberation to it, suggesting that better minds, better hearts, and better people than you are working to solve the problem right now.

Anyway, it's all another crock of the usual waste matter. Have I really told you anything if I say that 10 per cent of Americans lost a limb to a wild boar or were threatened with losing a limb to a wild boar from 1996 to 1998? Fact is, these kinds of "reports" don't have a thing to do with getting at the truth or working toward some social policy (note, not a government policy) to alleviate hunger in America. These reports are about political posturing.

Of course there are hungry Americans. There are certain geographical pockets of hunger (Appalachia being the best known), but no widespread famines, for Pete's sake; with not a whole lot of get-up-and-go, the hungry can avail themselves of both state and private food banks, missions, soup kitchens, even meals-on-wheels. Why some don't, and why some people will fail to provide for themselves no matter what anyone else does, is an enduring human mystery. We have some urban blight to acknowledge, certainly, but it's buildings and streets that decay; people are resilient. Still, you can fill a year's worth of Oprah with just anecdotes of poor people coping with their environment.

Ah, but this is where it gets interesting. As opposed to, say, Haiti, in America the "poor" and the "hungry" are not necessarily the same people.

Those "geographical" victims are both poor and hungry, but when you move through the bottom half of Oprahland, the city dwelling consumers of lowbrow cultural pap, you enter the domain of the affluent poor; these people are only poor by the government's arbitrary measurements. For one thing, the feds don't add the value of welfare or food stamps or medical care to the person's income. In addition, the entrepreneurial chutzpah of many ghetto dwellers -- buying, selling and bartering in what's called a black market, in fact simply an unregulated one -- adds a separate, unreported revenue stream to many family coffers. The only true measure of economic status is consumption, not income.

My own awakening to this fact took place some years back while watching yet another network TV indictment of the free market, some putative documentary on urban poverty; in all the households visited, whether white or black or brown or some combination thereof, many of the people were seriously overweight. And wearing $100 sneakers. And watching cable TV. While eating microwave popcorn, of course. On an income, the narrator said, of less than $15,000 a year. Now this particular family's home certainly wasn't Donald Trump's place, but I'll bet the Donald has stayed in worse.

Okay, so I might not want to trade places with the poor black family in Detroit. But I don't want to trade places with Donald, either. Money isn't the measure of happiness. And our happiness certainly cannot be measured by the bureaucrats of the Clinton Administration.

I don't have time in an under-1000-words commentary to assemble and interpret the facts we do have about hunger; to follow up on every interesting anomaly of American poverty; to discern and describe the individual and collective forces at work in a complex, market-based society, forces which are harnessed by many in pursuit of their dreams, but which can swamp the weak or unprepared in their powerful wake.

But I did have time and space here to do what I consider my duty: Continue my unrelenting verbal assault on the forces of tyranny and collectivism, here and abroad, heaping disdain and derision upon their political mythology with great good cheer. The heck with 'em, y'know?

Oh, one more thing: From those who have been forgiven much, much is expected. Much is expected also from those who know the truth, especially those who can communicate it passionately. If you fall into any of these groups (be honest!) then go and do some good; that's how we win, a little bit here and there every day, one person at a time.

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting

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