Thursday, February 11, 2010

Misdirecting Charity by Perpetuating the Myth of Widespread Hunger in America

hungry Don Boudreaux:

Desire to help others is noble. It’s noble, though, not in and of itself. It’s noble only if it’s likely to lead to helping others who truly need help. A desire to help others that prompts well-meaning people to address nonexistent problems isn’t so much noble as it is misguided and, possibly, dangerous.

Is the claim that one in eight Americans is seriously at risk of hunger even remotely plausible? No. Food in the U.S. is remarkably inexpensive, which is attested to by the fact that ours is the first society in history whose poor people suffer disproportionately from obesity…

“As a group, America’s poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.”

These facts simply and irrefutably contradict the notion that a significant number of Americans routinely go hungry. Indeed, we can confidently say that modern industrial capitalism has slain one of history’s greatest killers: starvation. As long as industrial capitalism exists, people who live under it will not starve.

Read the whole thing.

Convincing well-meaning people to donate money to a non-existent problem is not only deceitful, but pulls money away from other charitable activities that are far more deserving.  It also creates political responses to these mythical problems, wasting tax dollars in order to “do something” to help alleviate imaginary suffering.  This is wrong on so many levels.

Exploring the Numbers:

obese_americans To put some numbers in perspective, here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations:

  • According to recent government statistics roughly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese and at least 17% of children. 
  • Using population distributions from 2000, roughly 21.42% are ages 0 to 19.
  • Assuming there are 300 million people in the US today, this translates into 64 million kids and 236 million adults.
  • Of these, 11 million kids (17%) and 157 million adults (66.7%) are overweight or obese.  If they have enough food to reach this condition, persistent hunger is unlikely a problem for most of them.
  • That leaves 132 million non-overweight, non-obese Americans.
  • If 1 in 8 Americans go hungry every day, that would translate into 37.5 million people or 28.4% of the non-overweight population.
  • If the proportion of hungry children and hungry adults is roughly equal (12.5%), that would mean 8 million kids and 29.5 million adults go hungry every day.
  • There are only 79 million non-overweight adults in the US.
  • This means 37% of non-overweight, non-obese adults go hungry every day, or roughly 4 out of 10.

More on this here.

Below is the commercial that is helping to perpetuate this myth.


Kevin said...

I wish I could remember the source of the quote, so I could give proper credit -- I remember one saying, he "wanted to come to America, where even the poor people are fat."

thinking said...

I'm surprised because the charity, Feeding America, used to be called Second Harvest Food Bank, which I always thought of as a very reputable charity.

They have a good rating with the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator. They meet the 20 criteria of the BBB for Charity Accountability.

Their board of directors includes a lot of big names from major corporations, including Proctor and Gamble, Kellogs, Kraft, Walmart, etc.

So if this charity is wrong, they have misled a lot of very powerful people and organizations.

Their data seems to come from a USDA survey done in 2008,(for those conservatives, it can't be blamed on the Obama administration).

So I don't know if their claims are true; it does seems a bit odd, but then again I cannot just judge by my own experience.

But this charity is huge and well supported. Their corporate supporters reads like a big chunk of a Who's Who list in corporate America.

thinking said...

A few more observations:
The article written by Dr. Boudreaux only mentions Macy's as the source of this data; I wish he had done as this post on this blog does and identify the true source: Feeding America.

Perhaps Dr. Boudreaux finds it easier to fault Macy's, rather than directly criticize the charity.

Also, perhaps Dr. Boudreaux should visit the Feeding America website, find a food bank in his area, and visit and do some volunteer work, and perhaps do a bit more research and observation.

Finally, the article is rather odd in its logical progression. It starts out faulting Macy's for supposedly misleading the public, but then digresses into the usual screed against government spending.

He neglects to mention the boatload of corporate sponsors for Feed America; perhaps they are all so gullible.

Also, Dr. Boudreaux fails to acknowledge that one reason why more Americans are not going hungry is because of govt programs like food stamps.

I wonder if this isn't Dr. Boudreaux just exercising his own political biases.

Brian Hollar said...

Hmmm... I wonder if you are? ;)

Brian Hollar said...

BTW, the reason why more Americans are not going hungry is not because of food stamps, but because of the abundance of choice and low costs we have in food thanks to a mostly free market in these products and technological progress and productivity gains in agriculture brought about by allowing people to keep the fruits of their labor. Walk through any grocery store and see what I mean. This level of abundance and low cost relative to wages is unprecedented in human history.

MPA_Blazer said...

The "hunger" numbers refer to food insecurity - or the chance that an individual will not receive the full nourishment detailed in USDA nutrition guidelines (in other words they won't get three full meals). These numbers are "accurate" but the way they are presented is misleading.

With no real oversight of nonprofits this is a very common tactic - as is misreporting operating and fundraising costs - the metrics that historically have been used to give good marks by Charity Nav and the BBB.

My masters thesis touches on this subject from a property rights and agency problem perspective. Interesting when their are no true "principles" as their are no true "owners" - interesting what happens in these cases.