America’s Political Economy: Hunger in America

Food insecurity in the US.

This remarkable post has been rattling around in my head ever since I first clicked the link. I think it has been jogged back to the top of stack by a bizarre encounter last night on Broadway with a man railing about the fact that our local McDonalds franchise does not “honor the $ 1 meal deal”. He was furious and very articulate!

Who would care about a $ 1 meal deal?

According to the USDA: “An estimated 12.7 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2015, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. That is down from 14.0 percent in 2014.”

Bad as those numbers are, do they underestimate the levels of hunger in the US? Jayson Lusk a Oklahoma State University agronomist and food policy expert has been conducting an in-depth survey of eating habits FooDS for the last four years. When he inserted USDA style questions about food insecurity into his more detailed survey forms, he found shocking results:

“Data from FooDS reveals a strikingly high level of food insecurity – much higher than what the USDA reports.  According to the criteria outlined at the above link, we found a whopping 46.7% or respondents were classified as having low or very low food security (22.9% of the sample had low food security and 23.8% had very low food security).”

How could this be? The main reason for the startlingly different result turns out to be a question of basic assumptions:

“In short, the USDA assumes that if you make enough money you can’t be food insecure. In their latest report, they indicate in footnote 5:

“To reduce the burden on higher income respondents, households with incomes above 185 percent of the Federal poverty line that give no indication of food-access problems on either of two preliminary screening questions are deemed to be food secure and are not asked the questions in the food security assessment series. ”

What if I take my FooDS data and just assume anyone that has an income that puts them at 185% of the poverty line (based on these criteria) is food secure despite the answers they gave on the survey? (note: my calculations are crude because I only measure household income in wide $20,000 ranges and I simply assign people to the midpoint of the income range they selected).

When I do this, I find that now “only” 22% are classified as having low or very low food security (9% of the sample had low food security and 13% had very low food security).  That’s still a lot higher than what the USDA reports, so maybe my internet survey still has some sample selection issues.  However, it’s still HALF the original measure.

What does this mean?  There are a lot of relatively high income people that would be classified as food insecure if the USDA simply asked them the same questions as everyone else.  There are a lot of relatively high income people that say “yes” to questions like “In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food?”

Upshot: even at income levels above poverty many households in the US struggle to put food on the table. And those in rural areas, especially those involved in farming are worst affected.

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