“Hunger” Games

As with their measurement of “poverty,” federal officials not surprisingly similarly play creatively with their definition of “hunger” — that is, “food insecurity.”

As James Bovard explains in The Wall Street Journal, in releasing figures showing nearly 15% of the U.S. population as “food insecure,” the USDA has in fact polled Americans on their feeling that the “quality and variety” of available food isn’t what we’d prefer:

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.”

Unfortunately, the media doesn’t appreciate this distinction, and when they report on the USDA’s findings, they have a tendency to substitute the word “hunger” for “food insecurity,” resulting in scare headlines such as the Washington Post’s:

Hunger a growing problem in America, USDA reports

and, from the New York Times:

Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High

President Obama is similarly in the dark about the distinction, announcing in 2009 that “hunger rose significantly last year” and promising to reverse “the trend of rising hunger.”

The President and others in political power, of course, have good reason to play fast and loose with how they label such statistics, since, as Robert Higgs has brilliantly documented, crises make for great job security, resulting in increasing budgets and more power.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics, indeed.

There are of course many people in need in this country and others, and a multitude of selfless non-profits and others working diligently to help move those in need from dependency to self-sufficiency whenever possible. Unfortunately, government programs are not among these efforts:

A 2013 Harvard School of Public Health study also found that enrolling in the food-stamp program failed to significantly boost participants’ food security or dietary quality.

No government employee, bureaucrat, or politician has the least incentive to reduce dependency, and in fact is rewarded for producing the opposite results that they are achieving.

If any of our do-gooders in the public sector wanted to actually reverse food insecurity trends, there are any number of simple immediate solutions: end marketing orders that make food less abundant and more expensive, remove fuel taxes that drive up transportation costs—the single highest component of food’s cost, end any of the thousands of regulations that impede sellers from entering the marketplace, end the war on drugs that has made inner cities war zones and driven food retailers out. Or, to best achieve food security: abolish the USDA.

And if Mrs. Obama really wants to end childhood obesity, she would do well to quote the USDA’s own survey in lobbying her husband to end the food stamp program:

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.

Such households need home ec, not food stamps.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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