Wednesday, November 15, 2006

USDA reports today that respondents experienced hunger in 2.9% of American households in 2005

At first glance, you might think the federal government has ceased to report how many American households experience hunger. But it is not true.

In the new food security report for 2005, released today by USDA's Economic Research Service, the department introduces the new term "very low food security" to describe households with serious symptoms of food-related hardship. Previously, the official wording for this classification was "food insecure with hunger."

The new report describes the change in terminology as a response to advice from the Center for National Statistics (CNSTAT), which advised a reconsideration of the evocative word "hunger."
The CNSTAT panel recommended that USDA make a clear and explicit distinction between food insecurity and hunger. Food insecurity—the condition assessed in the food security survey and represented in the statistics in this report—is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Hunger is an individual level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity. The word “hunger,” the panel stated in its final report, “...should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” To measure hunger in this sense would require collection of more detailed and extensive information on physiological experiences of individual household members than could be accomplished effectively in the context of the household-based and labor force-oriented CPS. The panel recommended, therefore, that new methods be developed to measure hunger and that a national assessment of hunger be conducted using an appropriate survey of individuals rather than a survey of households.
While USDA may consider following this advice to develop new methods in the future, the status for now is that the federal government has eliminated the word "hunger" from its most prominently reported figures.

Readers who really want to know the extent of hunger in American households, or who simply object to the government's new antiseptic words for describing a serious social concern, may begin to ignore the federal government's very low food security measure altogether. Dispensing with all the mumbo-jumbo, the heart of the matter is found deep in appendix table A-1 of today's USDA report. In this table, one sees more simply the fraction of American households whose respondents reported that they were hungry but didn't eat because they couldn't afford food. I challenge anybody to find in the government's official statistics, which collapse information from 18 different questions using a Rasch scaling model, anything as comprehensible as this simple number.

By this straightforward measure, the fraction of American households whose respondent experienced hunger in 2005 is 2.9%, a statistic that has not improved since 2002 despite the economic expansion.

2 comments:

Fern Gale Estrow said...

First there was an attempt to co-opt the term Food Security (which was not successful) and this - is there a suggestion here that we don't want to recognize the problem? Thanks for your post and while it may take some time for people to focus on this Orwillian action - I for one am not ready to accept this miminalization of either our language or the issue.

Tricia said...

It does seem to me like an attempt to cover up the real problem. How many people reading the newspaper are going to equate "food [in]security" with hunger? I guess it is similar to "job security" but in this day and age it's probably more likely to evoke "national security"....