Thursday, September 04, 2014

Defining Destitution Down

There was a time when a fair number of people in America did have to worry about how they were going to fill their gullet each day. Today, that is for the most part no longer the case. To paraphrase something I heard not long ago from an unknown source, ours is the first society where the rich are thin and the poor are fat. Obesity is a far more prevalent problem for our children then hunger.

But we still will hear the occasional alarm raised over the problem of millions of Americans going hungry. That is large part due to the way that we have redefined the problem as James Bovard explains in today’s Wall Street Journal. How the Feds Distort Their 'Food Insecurity' Numbers:

On Wednesday the Agriculture Department released the results of its annual Household Food Security in the United States survey for 2013. According to the USDA survey, 14.3% of U.S. households—some 49 million Americans—were "food insecure at least some time during the year in 2013." The decrease from 14.5% of households in 2012 was "not statistically significant." Yet if the past is any guide, the survey will be wrongfully invoked by politicians and pundits as proof of a national hunger crisis.

Is being "food insecure" the same as going hungry? Not necessarily. The USDA defines a "food insecure" household in the U.S. as one that is "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food" at times during the year. The USDA notes: "For most food-insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity."

The National Academy of Sciences urged the USDA in 2006 to explicitly state that its food-security survey results are not an estimate of nationwide hunger. The USDA responded by dropping any mention of "hunger" in the survey's response categories. Nevertheless, the survey's results continue to be pervasive.

Sure, it would great if all Americans could always secure the quality and variety of food they wanted. But just because they cannot it does not mean that they are going hungry.

Though the food-security survey results are often touted as evidence of widespread hunger, another USDA survey debunked that conclusion. The agency's Agricultural Research Service conducts periodic surveys of "What We Eat in America." The most recent survey (2009-10) revealed that children ages 2 to 11 in households with less than $25,000 in annual income consume significantly more calories than children in households with incomes above $75,000.

Bovard notes that this does not mean that hunger isn’t a problem for some people in America. But by conflating “food-insecurity” with hunger we don’t present a clear picture of the extent of the problem and don’t get any closer to solving it for those truly in need.