Hunger in America

Like you probably, I just received a plea for support from an organization that provides food for the needy. The occasion of course is the coming Thanksgiving Holiday. In their e-mail, they say that 1 in 6 Americans struggle with hunger while we, the relatively affluent, dine on lavish turkey feasts. That statistic brought me up short. Could it really be true that 50 million Americans lack even the minimum adequate food? If so, that is an atrocity that should shame us all. Why are we fussing over climate change or rotting infrastructure, for example, when the most basic needs of so many of our fellow citizens are unmet? Why wasn’t this the principal issue in our recent election?


But, ever the skeptic, I did a little research into the provenance of that statistic. It is widely quoted. Such knowledgeable and renowned experts as Nobelist Paul Krugman has mentioned it. It can be found in several government publications. So it clearly isn’t just nonsense. But, on closer examination, I find that data are being misinterpreted. There is certainly a need, but this statistic is vastly overstated. Sometimes this is simply through carelessness and sometimes, as in the case of Dr. Krugman, it appears to be a deliberate attempt to misinform in order to make a point.

I don’t know what the real number is, and any widespread and curable hunger in our wealthy nation is offensive. However, fudging the figures is the wrong way to awaken America to a problem that urgently needs fixing.

So, why is this figure wrong? First, the government data actually refer to cases of occasional or periodic “food insecurity”, not actual and continuing hunger. Some seniors relying on Social Security can run short toward the end of the month. That hardly implies that they are starving, particularly since additional food sources can often be found. Second, the statistic applies to families not individuals. In other words, if any family member sometimes has inadequate food, the family as a whole is considered to have food insecurity and every member swells the statistic. But that isn’t how things work in most families. Often parents will forgo meals in order to feed their children. Not every family member inherits the family deficiency. Third, the poorest among us are eligible for food stamps. This program doesn’t in itself cure the problem but it is a significant mitigation. Yet, for obvious reasons, the statistic in question doesn’t consider such support in assessing the need. All the many millions eligible for food stamps are quite logically considered to have food insecurity. Thus they comprise a major portion of the inflated 50 million estimate of hungry Americans.

It should also be noted that some causes of inadequate nutrition are not simply due to lack of resources. Examples are drug addiction and mental disease. They are quite properly included in the statistic, but this a bit misleading because resolving this component of need isn’t amenable to simply food donations.

The bottom line is that the deliberate image of Dickensian food scarcity is overblown. There is a problem and we should address it. But wild misstatements are a disservice to this need.