An Access Advertising EconBrief:
One in Six American Children is Hungry – No, Wait – One in Five!
You’ve heard the ad. A celebrity – or at least somebody who sounds vaguely familiar, like singer Kelly Clarkson – begins by intoning somberly: “Seventeen million kids in America don’t know where their next meal is coming from or even if it’s coming at all.” One in six children in America is hungry, we are told. And that’s disgraceful, because there’s actually plenty of food, more than enough to feed all those hungry kids. The problem is just getting the food to the people who need it. Just make a donation to your local food pantry and together we can lick hunger in America. This ad is sponsored by the Ad Council and Feeding America.
What was your reaction? Did it fly under your radar? Did it seem vaguely dissonant – one of those things that strikes you wrong but leaves you not quite sure why? Or was your reaction the obvious one of any intelligent person paying close attention – “Huh? What kind of nonsense is this?”
Hunger is not something arcane and mysterious. We’ve all experienced it. And the world is quite familiar with the pathology of hunger. Throughout human history, hunger has been mankind’s number one enemy. In nature, organisms are obsessed with absorbing enough nutrients to maintain their body weight. It is only in the last few centuries that tremendous improvements in agricultural productivity have liberated us from the prison of scratching out a subsistence living from the soil. At that point, we began to view starvation as atypical, even unthinkable. The politically engineered famines that killed millions in the Soviet Union and China were viewed with horror; the famines in Africa attracted sympathy and financial support from the West. Even malnutrition came to be viewed as an aberration, something to be cured by universal public education and paternalistic government. In the late 20th century, the Green Revolution multiplied worldwide agricultural productivity manifold. As the 21st century dawned, the end of mass global poverty and starvation beckoned within a few decades and the immemorial problem of hunger seemed at last to be withering away.
And now we’re told that in America – for over a century the richest nation on Earth – our children – traditionally the first priority for assistance of every kind – are hungry at the ratio of one in six?
WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?
The Source of the Numbers – and the Truth About Child Hunger
Perhaps the most amazing thing about these ads, which constitute a full-fledged campaign, is the general lack of curiosity about their origins and veracity. Seemingly, they should have triggered a firestorm of criticism and investigation. Instead, they have been received with yawns.
The ads debuted last Fall. They were kicked off with an article in the New York Times on September 5, 2013, by Jane L. Levere, entitled “New Ad Campaign Targets Childhood Hunger.” The article is one long promotion for the ads and for Feeding America, but most of all for the “cause” of childhood hunger. That is, it takes for granted that a severe problem of childhood hunger exists and demands close attention.
The article cites the federal government as the source for the claim that “…close to 50 million Americans are living in ‘food insecure’ households,” or ones in which “some family members lacked consistent access throughout the year to adequate food.” It claims that “…almost 16 million children, or more than one in 5, face hunger in the United States.”
The ad campaign is characterized as “the latest in a long collaboration between Ad Council and Feeding America, ” which supplies some 200 food banks across the country that in turn supply more than 61,000 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. Feeding America began in the late 1990s as another organization, America’s Second Harvest, which enlisted the support of A-list celebrities such as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. This was when the partnership with the Ad Council started.
Priscilla Natkins, a Vice-President of Ad Council, noted that in the early days “only” one out of 10 Americans was hungry. Now the ratio is 1 out of 7 and more than 1 out of 5 children. “We chose to focus on children,” she explained, “because it is a more poignant approach to illustrating the problem.”
Further research reveals that, mirabile dictu, this is not the first time that these ads have received skeptical attention. In 2008, Chris Edwards of Cato Institute wrote about two articles purporting to depict “hunger in America.” That year, the Sunday supplement Parade Magazine featured an article entitled “Going Hungry in America.” It stated that “more than 35.5 million Americans, more than 12% of the population and 17% of our children, don’t have enough food, according to the Department of Agriculture.” Also in 2008, the Washington Post claimed that “about 35 million Americans regularly go hungry each year, according to federal statistics.”
Edwards’ eyebrows went up appropriately high upon reading these accounts. After all, this was even before the recession had been officially declared. Unlike the rest of the world, though, Edwards actually resolved to verify these claims. This is what Edwards found upon checking with the Department of Agriculture.
In 2008, the USDA declared that approximately 24 million Americans were living in households that faced conditions of “low food security.” The agency defined this condition as eating “less varied diets, participat[ing] in Federal food-assistance programs [and getting] emergency food from community food pantries.” Edwards contended that this meant those people were not going hungry – by definition. And indeed, it is semantically perverse to define a condition of hunger by describing the multiple sources of food and change in composition of food enjoyed by the “hungry.”
The other 11 million (of the 35 million figure named in the two articles) people fell into a USDA category called “very low food security.” These were people whose “food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food” [emphasis added]. Of these, the USDA estimated that some 430,000 were children. These would (then) comprise about 0.6% of American children, not the 17% mentioned by Parade Magazine, Edwards noted. Of course, having to reduce food on one or more occasions to some unnamed degree for financial reasons doesn’t exactly constitute “living in hunger” in the sense of not knowing where one’s next meal was coming from, as Edwards observed. The most that could, or should, be said was that the 11 million and the 430,000 might constitute possible candidates for victims of hunger.
On the basis of this cursory verification of the articles’ own sources, Chris Edward concluded that hunger in America ranked with crocodiles in the sewers as an urban myth.
We can update Edwards’ work. The USDA figures come from survey questions distributed and tabulated by the Census Bureau. The most recent data available were released in December 2013 for calendar year 2012. About 14.5% of households fell into the “low food security” category and about 5.7% of households were in the “very low food security” pigeonhole. Assuming the current average of roughly 2.58 persons per household, this translates to approximately 34 million people in the first category and just under 13.5 million people in the second category. If we assume the same fraction of children in these at-risk households as those in 2008, that would imply about 635,000 children in the high-risk category, or less than 0.9 of 1% of the nation’s children. That is a far cry from the 17% of the nation’s children mentioned in the Washington Post article of 2008. It is a farther cry from the 17,000,000 children mentioned in current ads, which would be over 20% of America’s children.
The USDA’s Work is From Hunger
It should occur to us to wonder why the Department of Agriculture – Agriculture, yet – should now reign as the nation’s arbiter of hunger. As it happens, economists are well situated to answer that question. They know that the federal food-stamp began in the 1940s primarily as a way of disposing of troublesome agricultural surpluses. The federal government spent the decade of the 1930s throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem of economic depression. Farmers were suffering because world trade had imploded; each nation was trying to protect its own businesses by taxing imports of foreign producers. Since the U.S. was the world’s leading exporter of foodstuffs, its farmers were staggering under this impact. They were swimming in surpluses and bled so dry by the resulting low prices that they burned, buried or slaughtered their own output without bringing it to market in an effort to raise food prices.
The Department of Agriculture devised various programs to raise agricultural prices, most of which involved government purchases of farm goods to support prices at artificially high levels. Of course, that left the government with lots of surplus food on its hands, which it stored in Midwestern caves in a futile effort to prevent spoilage. Food distribution to the poor was one way of ridding itself of these surpluses, and this was handled by the USDA which was already in possession of the food.
Just because the USDA runs the food-stamp program (now run as a debit-card operation) doesn’t make it an expert on hunger, though. Hunger is a medical and nutritional phenomenon, not an agricultural one. Starvation is governed by the intake of sufficient calories to sustain life; malnutrition is caused by the maldistribution of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Does the Census Bureau survey doctors on the nutritional status of their patients to provide the USDA with its data on “food insecurity?”
Not hardly. The Census Bureau simply asks people questions about their food intake and solicits their own evaluation of their nutritional status. Short of requiring everybody to undergo a medical evaluation and submit the findings to the government, it could hardly be otherwise. But this poses king-sized problems of credibility for the USDA. Asking people whether they ever feel hungry or sometimes don’t get “enough” food is no substitute for a medical evaluation of their status.
People can and do feel hungry without coming even close to being hungry in the sense of risking starvation or even suffering a nutritional deficit. Even more to the point, their feelings of hunger may signal a nutritional problem that cannot be cured by money, food pantries, shelters or even higher wages and salaries. The gap between the “low food security” category identified by the USDA and starving peoples in Africa or Asia is probably a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon.
The same America that is supposedly suffering rampant hunger among both adults and children is also supposedly suffering epidemics of both obesity and diabetes. There is only one way to reconcile these contradictions: by recognizing that our “hunger” is not the traditional type but rather the kind associated with diabetes (hence, obesity) rather than the traditional sort of starvation or malnutrition. Over-ingestion of simple carbohydrates and starches can often cause upward spikes in blood sugar among susceptible populations, triggering the release of insulin that stores the carbohydrate as fat. Since the carbohydrate is stores as fat rather than burned for energy, the body remains starved for energy and hungry even though it is getting fat. Thus do hunger and obesity coexist.
The answer is not more government programs, food stamps, food pantries and shelters. Nor, for that matter, is it more donations to non-profit agencies like Feeding America. It is not more food at all, in the aggregate. Instead, the answer is a better diet – something that millions of Americans have found out for themselves in the last decade or so. In the meantime, there is no comparison between the “hunger” the USDA is supposedly measuring and the mental picture we form in our minds when we think of hunger.
This is not the only blatant contradiction raised by the “hunger in America” claims. University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, in his prize-winning 2012 book The Redistribution Recession, has uncovered over a dozen government program and rule changes that reduced the incentive to work and earn. He assigns these primary blame for the huge drop in employment and lag in growth that the U.S. has summered since 2007. High on his list are the changes in the food-stamp program that substituted a debit card for stamps, eliminated means tests and allowed recipients to remain on the program indefinitely. A wealthy nation in which 46 million out of 315 million citizens are on the food dole cannot simultaneously be suffering a problem of hunger. Other problems, certainly – but not that one.
What About the Real Hunger?
That is not to say that real hunger is completely nonexistent in America. Great Britain’s BBC caught word of our epidemic of hunger and did its own story on it, following the New York Times, Washington Post, Parade Magazine party line all the way. The BBC even located a few appropriately dirty, ragged children for website photos. But the question to ask when confronted with actual specimens of hunger is not “why has capitalism failed?” or “why isn’t government spending enough money on food-security programs?” The appropriate question is “why do we keep fooling ourselves into thinking that more government spending is the answer when the only result is that the problem keeps getting bigger?” After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
The New York Times article in late 2013 quoted two academic sources that were termed “critical” of the ad campaign. But they said nothing about its blatant lies and complete inaccuracy. No, their complaint was that it promoted “charity” as the solution rather than their own pet remedies, a higher minimum wage and more government programs. This calls to mind the old-time wisecrack uttered by observers of the Great Society welfare programs in the 1960s and 70s: “This year, the big money is in poverty.” The real purpose of the ad campaign is to promote the concept of hunger in America in order to justify big-spending government programs and so-called private programs that piggyback on the government programs. And the real beneficiaries of the programs are not the poor and hungry but the government employees, consultants and academics whose jobs depend on the existence of “problems” that government purports to “solve” but that actually get bigger in order to justify ever-more spending for those constituencies.
That was the conclusion reached, ever so indirectly and delicately, by Chris Edwards of Cato Institute in his 2008 piece pooh-poohing the “hunger in America” movement. It applies with equal force to the current campaign launched by non-profits like the Ad Council and Feeding America, because the food banks, food pantries and shelters are supported both directly and indirectly by government programs and the public perception of problems that necessitate massive government intervention. It is the all-too-obvious answer to the cry for enlightenment made earlier in this essay.
In this context, it is clear that the answer to any remaining pockets of hunger is indeed charity. Only private, voluntary charity escapes the moral hazard posed by the bureaucrat/consultant class that has no emotional stake in the welfare of the poor and unfortunate but a big stake in milking taxpayers. This is the moral answer because it does not force people to contribute against their will but does allow them to exercise free will in choosing to help their fellow man. A moral system that works must be better than an immoral one that fails.
Where is the Protest?
The upshot of our inquiry is that the radio ads promoting “hunger in America” and suggesting that America’s children don’t know where their next meal is coming from are an intellectual fraud. There is no evidence that those children exist in large numbers, but their existence in any size indicts the current system. Rather than rewarding the failure of our current immoral system, we should be abandoning it in favor of one that works.
Our failure to protest these ads and publicize the truth is grim testimony to how far America has fallen from its origins and ideals. In the first colonial settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth, colonists learned the bitter lesson that entitlement was not a viable basis for civilization and work was necessary for survival. We are in the process of re-learning that lesson very slowly and painfully.