Hunger Figures Show Massive Failure of Food Stamps (Or Fishy Statistics)

Hunger Figures Show Massive Failure of Food Stamps (Or Fishy Statistics)

By Paul Roderick Gregory - April 4, 2013

Statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Agriculture reveal that childhood hunger rates remain high. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates that 29.2 percent of families with children are “food insecure,” to use the agriculture department’s term. Insofar as 32 million of the 78 million U.S. families have children, this means that some 20 million children live in food insecure households.

“Twenty million hungry children” should be a shocker. We have expensive and pervasive government programs to eradicate such problems. We have a First Lady, who has put childhood nutrition on the front burner. “Twenty million hungry children” suggests a policy failure of massive proportions. 

Speaking of cost and effort: Almost fifty million Americans receive food stamps (renamed SNAP). Some one half of these (25 million) are children. We spend $75 billion on food stamps, or $1,500 per recipient. Food stamps cost $4,500 per year to supply a single mother with two children.

Another 32 million school children receive free or highly subsidized meals at schools. The federal, state and local government cost of school meals is some $14 billion, or about $438 per year per recipient. For the single mother with two kids, free school lunches add almost $1,000 to her food budget.

Children living in poor homes are also the beneficiaries of federal aid to families with dependent children, subsidized housing, CHIPS health insurance among other things– all of which free up household income for purchases of food.

The headline: We have 25 million children receiving food stamps and 32 million children receiving school lunches. Nevertheless, we still have 20 million children who are “food insecure.”

These figures suggest, by the way, that five million non-poor children are on food stamps and 12 million non-poor children get free meals at schools. Food stamps and free lunches have become middle class entitlements.

Either we have a colossal policy failure of our federal food programs or there is something fishy with the federal government’s measure of “hunger.”

The U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies families as “food secure”or “food insecure.” It publishes no direct measure of “hunger,” only of “food security.” (The details of the survey are found in the statistical appendix to their annual survey) Households are “food insecure” if they report worrying about not having enough money to buy food, if they substitute cheaper foods, skip meals, or eat less for financial reasons. According to the latest statistics, 29 percent of families with children are food insecure. (By this measure, I might be food insecure. I am constantly substituting cheaper foods for more expensive).

Notably, weekly spending on food by the median “food insecure” household is 95 percent of the cost of the USDA Thrifty Food Plan – the minimum cost of an affordable and healthy diet. It seems that another five cents on the dollar separates 20 million hungry children from a healthy diet.

Not publicized are the USDA’s most direct measures of childhood hunger. They show that between one and two percent of families “cut the size of children’s meals” or report that “children were hungry” or “skipped meals.” And only one tenth of one percent of families reported that “children did not eat for a whole day.” The USDA’s most direct measures yield a childhood hunger rate between one and two in a hundred, not one in five.

A wealthy nation like the United States should have no hungry children. The USDA figures actually show that we are close to this ideal. That “food insecure” families spend almost enough to buy the government’s suggested minimum balanced diet tells us that the problem is poor food choice, not hunger per se.

Notably, the free school lunch program now justifies itself as a way to correct children’s bad dietary habits, I guess acquired at home. Now the only thing standing between children and a healthy diet are the rascally junk food companies and their DC lobbyists. 

This article originally appeared in Forbes on April 3, 2013. It is reprinted with permission from the Hoover Institution

Paul Roderick Gregory

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