Wednesday, September 06, 2017

12.3% of U.S. households food insecure in 2016

USDA reported today that the rate of household food insecurity fell during the economic recovery of the last five years of the Obama administration, from 14.9% in 2011 to 12.3% in 2016. The annual statistics are based on a national household survey each December, which asks about 18 different experiences related to food security during the year.

The new statistics represent modest improvements after a period of exceptionally high food insecurity in the United States. From the time the survey measurement began in the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s, the rate of household food insecurity never exceeded 12% [typo corrected, 4pm]. Then, during the Great Recession, in the last year of the W. Bush administration, this leading measure of food-related hardship jumped from 11.1% in 2007 to 14.6% in 2008, the largest ever single-year increase.

Although it is sometimes said that USDA no longer measures "hunger," one of the 18 survey items is a direct question asking survey respondents whether they went hungry during the year: The statistical supplement to the new USDA report shows that 4.0% of household respondents reported being hungry in 2016.

In the late 1990s, the United States and many other countries adopted goals for cutting food insecurity and hunger by half. Yet, the rate of food insecurity is higher now than it was at the time those goals were set. In the longer term, there has been no national progress toward reducing food insecurity and hunger.

A bi-partisan National Commission on Hunger in late 2015 made a series of sensible recommendations for reducing U.S. hunger. The report includes several compromises on themes that are likely to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike, including protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from deep cuts, promoting dietary quality, and supporting work for program participants. At Brookings, the economist Jim Ziliak has recommended an agenda for modernizing SNAP (.pdf) that includes a benefit increase.

Yet, as Congress takes up the next Farm Bill, which will reauthorize SNAP, there is serious concern that leadership in both the House and Senate will support a more punitive approach with a focus on budget reduction at the expense of the poorest Americans. If that happens, it is easy to imagine that rates of household food insecurity could reverse course, end their recent brief turn toward national goals, and climb once more.

In my view, Americans of all political persuasions, Democrat and Republican, whether oriented primarily toward the social safety net or toward market-based solutions, should express high ambitions for reducing food insecurity and hunger in the United States.


Anonymous said...

Your food insecurity index shows a reduction of some 17%, and SNAP handouts are down during that period as well.

Somehow you manage to twist a social success, a rather stunning success in context of the history of the food stamp entitlement program, into a calamity...and yet another pleading harangue for more entitlement tax and spend boondoggle in the SNAP program!

Seriously, do you honestly believe SNAP is the end-all-be-all answer to food insecurity? Could you please, just this once, set aside your pledge to shun conventional investigative analytics and supplement your emotional seat-of-the-pants faux-science sociology mantra with some substantive statistical evidence?

How does Tufts justify your existence?

usfoodpolicy said...

Hi Anonymous. Thanks for your comment! Yes, good plan. As you propose, I will continuously endeavor to pursue investigative analytics and substantive statistical evidence.

From a regular correspondent such as yourself, I'm especially interested to hear if you think: (a) deep cuts to SNAP would not harm food security, (b) it's okay if they would harm food security (because you find the measure useless), or something else.

Your last sentence doesn't strengthen your comment. I've always treated you with respect. Reciprocate! You'll like it.

Anonymous said...

You've sort of loaded the choices there, Parke, not exactly the ideal behavior for anyone, like yourself, employed as faculty at an academic institution if any respect for the scientific method is espoused, but what the heck, I'll play along...

I choose '(a) deep cuts to SNAP would not harm food security', reasoning that:

1) "deep cuts" to any entitlement never end up being very deep after all is said and done, so fat chance of "deeply cutting" the SNAP pork fat out here in the real world;

2) I can't help noticing more and more school districts are being pressured to hand out free meals to students, increasingly we hear 3 meals a day are being fed and many schools already feed not only lunch, but breakfast routinely, making a significant purpose of the SNAP program redundant;

3) Food insecurity is down -- go ahead and credit SNAP for this, if you must -- anyway, with food insecurity declining, logically there is reduced need for SNAP handouts, not more;

4) Ideally funding cuts to SNAP will stimulate greater vigilance in handing out those benefits only to qualified and trustworthy recipients, and perhaps spawn an interest in enforcement actions against fraudsters and abusers of those handouts;

5) There's the old timeworn adage 'teach a man to fish...' Yeah, I know, that sort of thing has fallen out of style and is not in keeping with your political agenda here -- probably best to pull it down, as with other monuments to traditional American culture that you find uncomfortable or inconvenient to your cause, eh?

6) You have done nothing to convince me, Parke, that recent successes in declining food insecurity are a direct result of recent increases in SNAP handouts, and certainly you have not demonstrated that food insecurity is caused by insufficient free food privileges in the U.S.A.

I'm quite certain you and your Liberal Elite pals have your own motives for perpetually growing out entitlement programs like SNAP, and I'm equally certain those motives are not exclusively a Samaritan regard for the welfare of undernourished Americans. Otherwise, you would be industriously ferreting out the true underlying cause(es) of food insecurity and heroically setting those egregious wrongs aright...instead of merely throwing more and more taxpayer money at it.

Oh, and BTW, my request that you apply some traditionally respected analytics to your argument, old fashioned as that may seem to you, still stands. Likewise, my sincere curiosity remains about how your employer, ostensibly an academic institution, comes to endorse your career descent from science to pop-science into the fringes of sociology. That you object to these legitimate questions is telling, telling indeed.

usfoodpolicy said...

Hi. Thanks for your comments. What, in your view, is the underlying cause of food insecurity? And what heroic efforts to pursue justice and set those egregious wrongs aright do you most admire?

Just for example, I always read with interest and appreciation politically conservative agendas for ambitious reductions in U.S. poverty. As I read them, I have a standard: they only count as helpful if they are realistic and goal-oriented. (There is a whole other body of conservative commentary on poverty that is merely free-market fantasy and victim-blaming, of which I've read enough to satisfy me for a lifetime.)

Anonymous said...

Well Parke, resolving issues of food insecurity and food policy in general is a task somewhat above my pay grade.

Maybe begin with the definition of "food insecurity". it's a little too broad and a little too vague, wouldn't you agree, to guide development of focused policy approaches. Lumping many issues into one big "problem", then reaching for a single simple silver bullet solution is the classic boondoggle.

I'd have to say WIC and some of the school meal programs (particularly in needy school districts) are at least focused enough to allow effective and efficient implementation, although that may require more discipline and effort than program managers care to exercise. But, when we handout EBT cards more or less on the honor system to interested folks who qualify (and indirectly but ultimately, in too many cases, to their friends and acquaintances who do not qualify), well Parke, then we're just begging for abuse to undermine the good intent of the program. As just one example, when nearly $1 million in EBT subsidies handed out in Maine routinely turn up in Orlando, Florida we can safely assume the program is troubled. Sure, someone somewhere is ultimately redeeming the gift cards for meals and munchies, and their appetites are satiated for the moment. Definitely a shotgun approach, though, wouldn't you agree Parke?

Of course the other thing about SNAP that cries out for reform or repeal is the obvious EBT abuses we all encounter for ourselves in the grocery checkout of ordinary grocery chains out here where us common people shop -- about a third of the time, I'd estimate, the person ahead of you in the line will use an EBT card to pay for at least some of the purchase. Thing is, about half of those food insecure folks are doing a pretty amazing job of keeping up appearances -- they have smartphones, stylish garb and jewelry, and pretty often they load their grocery haul into a newer, more expensive and much nicer vehicle than I'm driving...and I'm one of the taxpayers who make EBT handouts possible. Is it really food insecurity if the cell phone bill and the new car lease and the charge account at Macy's are all current. You'll even occasionally see someone blowing EBT taxpayer bucks on overpriced organic stuff and on really expensive cuts of meat (unfortunately that's most cuts of meat these days, BTW).

No doubt thousands of truly deserving families benefit from SNAP handouts. It's a reasonable humanitarian gesture to tide them over until they can sort themselves out and get back on their feet. As employment rates continue to recover and our economy continues to grow, opportunities open up...and food insecurity declines.

You dismiss one traditional lifestyle choice; employment and thrift to keep one's head above poverty, suggesting that is not "realistic and goal-oriented", but then turn around and recommend expansion of the SNAP handout program that is merely a shotgun approach to applying currency band-aids to the boo boo. What you're advocating with expanding SNAP subsidies only encourages behaviors that allow folks to place nutritious food low on their list of personal and family priorities.

You know, "Give a man a fish...etc, etc, blah, blah, blah" Have youz guyz over at Tufts formulated a better proverb yet?

usfoodpolicy said...

Hi. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

I understand you disagreed with Jim Ziliak's proposal for a benefit increase.

So, setting that aside, may I ask, what did you think of the report from the bipartisan commission on hunger? It included several themes that also show up in your comments: using SNAP as employment support, protecting against fraud, perhaps being open to changing what can be bought with benefits, and more. That report recognizes, as you say in your comments, "thousands of truly deserving families benefit from SNAP handouts."

You're right that my own personal views favor a more energetically and magnanimously generous social safety net as a point of pride for a prosperous society. But I'm really not pushing my personal views on you, or on the public at large in our politically divided country. Above all, from this conversation, I'm curious about what SNAP policy could ever be a vehicle for productive conversation between folks like yourself and myself. Watching the news -- first Fox News one day and listening to NPR the next -- I feel quite sure that the conversation could be less poisonous if people of good will made the attempt.

Anonymous said...

You probably have no experience from where you're sitting, up there in the protected and well-paid Ivory Tower, Parke, but our society out here in the real world hasn't been "prosperous" for nearly a decade, now. At this pace of recovery it will be a long, long, long time before we can afford to go back to giving away the store. If "people of good will" intended any permanent accomplishment, I believe those good, righteous folks would finagle some sort of solid means of getting everyone educated, currently trained up in job skills, inherently knowledgeable about basic human nutrition science, and respectful of thrift as means of meeting family priorities.

Otherwise, yeah, the SNAP program will linger with us and it needs some serious revamping. Optics of the current program, alone, incriminate SNAP as a sloppy boondoggle of a program endorsed and championed by naive do-gooders who know not their elbow from their arsehole. I rather doubt Fox News, NPR or the PMS Newshour have anything constructive to add to the discussion -- it would be a first if they did.

Anyway, I certainly don't see SNAP handouts as a partisan thing. Seems it is an example of an all-too-typical expensive government muddling that makes a convenient flogging post for folks who are motivated to politicize everything. Too superficial and argument.

Fact is, as a cure for "food insecurity" (however one chooses to define that), the SNAP program is a farce -- it does not address causes (wonderfully nebulous, so loved by do-gooders), it provides no permanent relief (an 'evergreen' entitlement, so loved by politicians), it is vulnerable to abuse (so loved by far too many two-bit scoundrels), and it is a convenient distraction from the real issues. The SNAP program simply sucks wind. It needs replaced; there is no fix for such an obtuse program...and making it bigger only makes the inanity of it that much bigger.

"People of good will" need to wake up and pull their heads out of their arses to recognize these give-aways do nothing but encourage dependency. Now, if only we had some brilliant tenured university professors tasked with formulating truly intelligent measurements and solutions, then we'd have something. Oh, wait, we DO have those academics, and have had for decades now. What the hell have they been doing all this time? Hmmm...sorta makes one wonder if academic tenure and endowed professorships are maybe only another example of failed entitlement programs, eh?

Rebecca said...

Anonymous, why do you choose to remain anonymous in these policy debates?

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, why are you concerned about my identity? Are you hoping, beyond hope that I am some sort of paid shill or conspirator (nope, neither)...or do you have in mind to target me in some fashion? The facts speak for themselves, and are (or should be) impervious to popularity contests. But I'm sure if I could say I was Oprah or Dr. Oz some of you would accept anything I might opine as pure gospel truth. Sorry, Rebecca, won't indulge you.

Actually, on this blog I am "anonymous" simply because it's the only way I can figure out to enter a comment on this site. Even then, clicking away through the "I am not a robot" exercise is plenty challenging.

So then, Rebecca, you at least learn I am not much of a computer geek (heh, and I'm not embarrassed by that one little bit). Happy now?

Parke can silence my questions any time he chooses...and he sometimes has when I've cut too close to the quick. I only wish someone, anyone, even an anonymous shadow would take a sincere interest in addressing some of my questions and concerns here. But, no, only ducking and dodging. Oh well, that's the internet, eh?