Figments, Policy:
Hunger in America

Liberals like to bemoan the irony of people in a rich country like the United States going hungry. It gets people riled up. As an example, here’s a link to Bread for the World reacting to a 2003 study about hunger in the US. A popular figure is that hunger affects 11% of US households. But a closer look at the data suggests a much rosier picture.


First, the 11% figure, from a 2003 study, counts “food insecure” households. That means households where the members worried that they might go hungry at some point in the previous 12 months. Most such households didn’t actually go hungry for a single day. It’s bad not to be sure about where your next meal is coming from. But when you nevertheless don’t actually go hungry, that’s not too bad.


Of the 3% of households that had experienced actual hunger, they had food most of the time. In most months, they experienced an actual lack of food about 1 to 7 days, and these families only experienced hunger about 8 or 9 months out of the year. The 3% figure is for households that experienced hunger at least one day out of the previous 365 days. It doesn’t mean that at any given time 3% of households are actually experiencing hunger.


So how many US households are going hungry? It turns out that on any given day it’s about one-half of 1% of households that are actually experiencing hunger. That’s about 20 times smaller than the ominous 11% figure that makes headlines.


This hunger figure says nothing about malnutrition, which is hunger taken to the point at which it’s actually damaging to the health. Remember, even among families that experience hunger, it’s usually about 30 to 40 days out of the year. In the US, practically the only instances of malnutrition are eating disorders or the result of dysfunctional parents, often parents who are following some extreme religious or philosophical dictates.


We could celebrate the practical elimination of hunger in our country, but we won’t. The liberals want to paint a negative picture because it fits the view that a capitalist system hurts the disadvantaged. Celebrating the minimization of hunger would undermine the liberal push for more government support of the poor. The conservatives, for their part, can’t afford to brag about the minimization of hunger because it’s welfare that’s put food on so many poor families’ tables. Celebrating the minimization of hunger would undermine the ideology that welfare is bad for its recipients. Nobody gets a payoff for acknowledging that we’ve done something right so no one touts our success.


April 2005