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Is America Struggling with Hunger?

October 28, 2009

Tags HealthU.S. HistoryEntrepreneurshipInterventionism

Norman Rockwell, 1924

"One in eight Americans is struggling with hunger."

If you haven't heard that line, then you must not have a TV. And if you haven't read it, even if you can't be bothered to open a newspaper, then you must live in some very, very, remote part of the country.

"One in eight Americans is struggling with hunger." Everybody knows that. And everybody is talking about it. That statistic caught on like wildfire, striking everyone with a feeling of collective emergency.

My reaction was quite different; not because I don't care about the satisfaction of my neighbors' primary needs, but only because I am more suspicious than sensitive.

One in eight, I thought, that's 12.5 percent — a huge proportion. That's thirty-seven million, five hundred thousand people, a huge number — incredible, really. I said to myself, how can it be that so many Americans struggle with hunger, and yet I see so little of it?

So I did what few people do: I checked. Where does that "one in eight" come from? And what does it mean?

The now-famous statistic comes from the annual Food Security Survey (FSS) of the United States Department of Agriculture.[1] The first thing to point out is that this level of hunger is not new: contrary to what one may infer from the current campaign, the recent economic crisis has little to do with it. In fact, while food insecurity in America has increased slightly under recent economic conditions, it has been more or less stable for the last 15 years, affecting around 11 percent of households.[2]

Another interesting tidbit of information is that until 2005, the FSS divided food insecurity into "food insecurity without hunger" and "food insecurity with hunger." It then replaced those labels, without any change in their statistical definition, with "low food security" and "very low food security," respectively. Thus, the famous "one-in-eight" hungry Americans include all Americans living in households that, until 2005, were described as food insecure, but without hunger.

So, just how many Americans do face hunger? Well, households with "very low food security" have represented a consistent third of all food-insecure households in past years — around 4 percent of total households. Yet, this still does not mean that one in twenty-five Americans struggles with hunger.

Figure 1Food Security Status of US Households, 2007Figure 1Note: Food-insecure households include those with low food security and very low food security.Source: Calculated by United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service using data from the December 2007 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement.

Indeed, what do these statistical categories mean? This question is essential, because it is only deceptive definitions that allow activists and the mass media to foster the myth that "one in eight Americans is struggling with hunger."

In the survery, households were counted as having low food security if they reported, for instance, that in the past year they had been "worried whether [their] food would run out before [they] got money to buy more."

This is a good description of an obviously very unsatisfying condition: a feeling of insecurity concerning food. But it does not imply and must not be confused with actual insecurity concerning food, i.e., actual threats to one's ability to afford food.

Other criteria were the incapacity to afford "balanced meals," or the need to rely on a "few kinds of low-cost food." Moreover, such conditions need not be a household's constant situation, but only the case "sometimes" during the past year.

Once again, a feeling of insecurity, or the dependence on cheap food is certainly very undesirable. Still, it seems an outright lie to describe as "struggling with hunger" those households (accounting for two-thirds of all food-insecure households) which reported "few, if any, indications of reduced food intake" at anytime during the year.

Figure 2Figure 2 

What about households with very low food security? The distinction between low and very low food security can best be described as a distinction between subjective and objective food insecurity.

The "defining characteristic" of households with very low food security "is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food."[3]

Now, even this hardly fits in the definition of hunger as formulated by the Committee on National Statistics: "a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation."[4]

In fact, households with "very low food security" include all those that, because of reduced food intake, sometimes felt the "usual uneasy sensation" of hunger — not hunger in the sense of a day-to-day struggle to maintain one's health and strength.

Likewise, publicizing the disastrous situation of America in the face of hunger, activists obviously point out the case of children. Yet, a close look at the actual data reveals that less than 1 percent of households with children had very low food security among children.[5]

$25 $20

"Thus, the famous 'one-in-eight' hungry Americans include all Americans living in households that, until 2005, were described as food insecure, but without hunger."

One would expect food insecurity to be closely linked to household resources. However, half of the households categorized as having very low food security have incomes well above the poverty line.[6] "On the other hand," the 2005 report states, "many low-income households (including almost two-thirds of those with incomes below the official poverty line) were food secure." Indeed, only 15 percent of households with incomes below the poverty line have very low food security.[7]

This means that 2 percent of all American households sometimes feel the "usual uneasy sensation" of hunger due to a lack of economic resources — and the vast majority of those with children manage to spare them from hunger.[8]

Certainly, this constitutes a problem; even more certainly, the truth is far from the collective-emergency myth that "one in eight Americans is struggling with hunger."

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Notes

[1] A brief summary is accessible at the US Department of Agriculture website.

[2] Household Food Security in the United States, 2005, Economic Research Services, United States Department of Agriculture, p. 10.

[3] US Department of Agriculture.

[4] Household Food Security in the United States, 2005, p. 6.

[5] US Department of Agriculture.

[6] Household Food Security in the United States, 2005, p. 13.

[7] Household Food Security in the United States, 2005, p. 16.

[8] The criterion I use to classify households as "lacking economic resources" is the Poverty Line x 1.3 ratio.

 


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