Are 36 million Americans hungry?

By Brian Carnell
web posted August 30, 1999

At a recent news conference with Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, the advocacy group Bread for the World claimed that by the end of this year 36 million Americans will suffer from hunger or be at risk of hunger. Bread for the World claimed welfare reform exacerbated the problem of hunger in the United States.

Are tens of millions of Americans really going hungry? Is welfare reform to blame? The short answer is no, and Bread for the World should be ashamed of itself for making claims that are contradicted by the very study they cite in support of their position.

Lies, damn lies and hunger statistics

In a press release, Bread for the World noted that, "one in ten U.S. households is still hungry or at risk of hunger; 10.2 per cent in 1998 and 10.3 per cent in 1995 … 36 million people, including more than 14 million children, live in these households." These claims are consistent with a recent USDA study, but Bread for the World conveniently picks and chooses statistics from that study to make hunger appear far worse a problem than it actually is.

The USDA study, "Household Food Security in the United States 1995-1998," surveyed 45,000 households and asked people to answer yes or no to statements such as, "In the last year I've worried that food would run out before I got money to buy more." The 1998 survey estimated that 89.8 percent of American households were food secure, meaning they always had enough money to buy food.That leaves 10.2 percent of households food insecure, but a detailed look at those households doesn't reveal any pattern of widespread hunger. Of the households considered food insecure, almost 65 percent reported no incidents of hunger whatsoever in the previous year.

About 3.6 percent of the households surveyed reported at least one incident of an adult skipping a meal because of a lack of money to buy food. Only 1.3 percent of households reported that an adult had not eaten for a whole day in the previous year, 0.9 percent reported an adult did not eat for a whole day in 3 or more months.

When looking at hunger in children, the statistics were even more encouraging. Only 0.8 percent of households reported a child skipping a meal at least once, only 0.5 percent reported a child skipping a meal in 3 or more months, and only 0.2 percent reported a child not eating for a whole day. Even these low percentages are probably too high. As the USDA summarized the data on children, "the measure of children in food-insecure households with hunger is not, as such, a valid estimate of the number of children directly experiencing hunger, but a rather wide upper-bound for this figure." Of course Bread for the World conveniently leaves out any mention of this caveat in its materials.

Poverty and welfare reform

A detailed look at the socioeconomic makeup of the food insecure also gives reasons for questioning exactly what the USDA study actually measures. The USDA researchers recorded the income levels of those claiming to be hungry and the statistics are a bit surprising. Based on its survey, for example, the USDA estimated that 1.2 million families whose income is only half the poverty level are food insecure -- which is to be expected. On the other hand it estimated that almost 1.6 million families whose income is above 185 percent of poverty were also food insecure.

Or to put it another way 4.8 million families whose income is less than half the poverty level experience no problem getting enough food, but 1.6 million families making almost four times as much reported food insecurity (though only a little more than half of those reported any actual hunger). What accounts for that odd result? Part of the answer would be that some of those way above poverty suffer from illnesses or similar situations which absorb large amounts of their income, although it is interesting that only 2 percent of elderly people living alone reported any incidents of hunger and they would be most likely to have expensive medical bills. Part of the answer could also be behavioral -- some adults may be spending money unwisely on non-essential non-food items rather than buying food.

Although the USDA study didn't ask about spending habits, another USDA study on low income households provides an interesting look at how poor people spend their income. According to the USDA study "The Effects of Food Stamps on Food Consumption: A Review of the Literature," an increase of one dollar in cash income in low income households increases spending on food by only 5 to 11 cents, whereas an additional increase in one dollar in food stamps (which in most places can only be spent on food and related items) increases household spending on food 23 to 29 cents. If given cash, then, low income families generally prefer to spend most of the extra dollar on something other than food, but if given food stamps (which are generally restricted only for food purchases), they tended to reduce the amount of other income spent on food (which is why the dollar food stamp only led to a 23 to 29 cent overall increase).

Either food was already so abundant that the low income households didn't need any additional food or there were other items which took preference over buying food even when additional food was needed.

This might explain a result that directly contradicts Bread for the World's rhetoric about the evils of welfare reform -- from 1995 to 1998 the level of hunger declined significantly. In 1995, 4.7 percent of surveyed families said they cut the size of a meal or skipped a meal altogether, while in 1998 only 4.2 percent reported doing so. In 1995, 3.1 percent of families reported being hungry at some point because they couldn't afford food, while in 1998 only 2.6 percent reported being hungry. Most importantly, in 1995 1.7 percent of families reported that their children experience some hunger while in 1998 only 1.1 percent of families reported a hungry child. Hunger appears to be declining in the short term, probably aided by the booming economy.

The bottom line - how serious a problem is hunger in America?

Taking into account other USDA studies that demonstrate poor children and middle class children eat roughly the same diet (not to mention widespread evidence that the primary health problem among the poor is obesity rather than insufficient food intake) it seems reasonable to conclude that for the most part there is no serious, widespread hunger problem in the United States. Nonetheless there are persistent pockets of hunger that include perhaps as many as half a million households. So what, if anything, should be done about this problem? Ironically the USDA and the Clinton administration in general talk from both sides of their mouths on this point.

A close reading of the USDA study reveals two factors that dramatically increase the risk of hunger -- not having a job and not having two parents in the household. While only 2.6 percent of married couples reported hunger, 11.9 percent of female headed single parent households and 4.8 percent of single parent male-headed households reported hunger.

As might be expected the only thing correlated more highly with hunger than single-parent households was low incomes. Only one percent of people making over 185 percent of the poverty level experienced hunger. Freed somewhat from the liberal ideology of the past, even the USDA concedes that the best way to improve income is to get people into steady jobs. At the same time, though, the Clinton administration openly pursues policies that would make it more difficult to create jobs for the poor while simultaneously making it more expensive for them to live.

One of the policy recommendations made by the USDA to increase food security, for example, is to go forward with efforts to remediate the effects of global warming. Yet meeting any of the carbon dioxide emissions set in the Kyoto Treaty would require the sort of high taxes on fossil fuels that would slow (or even reverse) job growth as well as hit the poor with much higher costs of living.

If the government and advocacy groups want to help eliminate the last vestiges of hunger in America, the best step would be to take off the regulatory shackles that hold back growth rather than try to whip up hysterical and inaccurate fears about welfare reform.

Brian Carnell is a freelance writer as well as editor and publisher of LibertySearch, a free-market oriented directory of web sites.

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