Hunger’s False Economy

By on 11/22/2010 in featured, Uncategorized

homeless and hungry
Credit: Aoife city womanchile

[A version of this will appear on TheAtlantic.com tomorrow]

In the dying days of this Congress, food activists face an awful choice: should we support the increased funding of children’s school lunches, even if it means taking money from a family’s food stamps? That is what’s on the table in a version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill passed by the Senate, in which an improved school meal program will be paid for by cutting back $2 billion in funding for food stamps in 2013.

No-one disputes that poor children need to be better fed, but government food stamp entitlements are the last tatters of a safety net for many millions of people. Evidence? Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture announced that 50.2 million Americans were food insecure in 2009, a mere 1 million more than the year before. Although that’s still one in six people, the figure was a victory. Given the soaring rates of poverty and unemployment in 2009, there could have been considerably more food insecure people.

When the recession started, over 10 million more people were added to the ranks of the food insecure: the number jumped from 37 million in 2007 to 49 million in 2008. One of the reasons that America didn’t see another 10 million food insecure people in 2009 was that the stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, boosted the amount of money that poor households received in food stamps.

The food stamp program is officially called SNAP –the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In March 2009 the average monthly SNAP benefit per recipient was $115. After the stimulus money began to flow in April 2009, it rose to between $133-134. This may sound paltry, but for households on the poverty line, it’s vital. A food secure household spends $200 a month on food for each household member. A food insecure household spends on average $55 less than that per person per month. In helping to bridge that gap, the food stamp boost made an immense difference. And it was an example of stimulus funding that was universally acclaimed – it led directly to higher productivity, jobs and wider community multiplier effects. (The food stamp multiplier effect is 1.73 compared to, say, 0.32 of making the Bush era income tax cuts permanent.)

Today, the poorest Americans are being threatened with a one-two punch. First, congress has failed to extend unemployment benefits for the 99ers – those who have run out of the 99 weeks of unemployment benefit, meaning that there are going to be many more families depending on food stamps in the future. Yet it is precisely these entitlements that the Senate has put on the block. Although many groups and large parts of the food industry think that it’s worth pushing for the Child Nutrition Bill this way, a few groups, such as the Food Research and Action Center think it’s short-sighted to let congress get away with robbing families’ entitlements to feed their children. FRAC is right.

We need both to expand SNAP and to expand school lunch programs. That means rejecting the Sophie’s choice between families and children. Behind the logic of paying for school lunches with food stamp funding is an assumption that, if poor families are sinking, ‘save women and children first’. Trouble is that cutting the food stamp program will hurt women more than men. Look at who goes hungry in the US: over a third of all single-female-headed households who have children are food insecure. No other household demographic is as likely to be going hungry. So, cut SNAP and who gets hurt? America’s poorest women.

There’s another problem with wanting to fund school lunches with food stamp money, and that’s the notion that hunger is a solitary phenomenon. It isn’t. It’s something for which the entire country pays. Three years ago, a team of researchers tried to calculate the social burden of hunger. Using some conservative assumptions, they totted up the economic footprint of food insecurity, tabulating everything from lower school performance and absenteeism to depression to an expensive national infrastructure of food banks and soup kitchens.

The entire country suffers when its children are hungry and deprived of basic nutrition. Food insecure families’ budgets can’t stretch to meet basic nutrition needs for everyone in the household – even after developing some very sophisticated shopping and cooking routines for its ‘Thrifty Food Plan’ , food economists and nutritionists couldn’t meet the recommended daily allowance of potassium and vitamin E. We also know that a shortage of basic nutrients hurts children swiftly, and long into the future. Malnourished children do poorly at school, being more likely to be absent, and more likely to need to retake grades, or to drop-out altogether. In 2005, the cost estimate for this – conservatively calculated in terms of education resources spent and productivity lost – was $9.2 billion in a single year. The cost of funding the Senate’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act for ten years: $4.5 billion.

A national school lunch program is a bargain. But paying for it by cutting back on family food entitlements is a false economy. In cutting SNAP entitlements, the cost of feeding the hungry is shifted to food banks. Some of the funding for this comes from charitable contributions, though much of it comes from government sources. And it’s an immensely wasteful way to feed the hungry. Food advocate Joel Berg quotes Dick Gabel on the long series of exchanges between food manufacturers, distributors, warehouses and food pantries that comprise the modern emergency food system who characterizes it as “the most inefficient system in the world. I should know. I helped create it.” It’s a system that cost $14.5 billion in 2005. State entitlements are a much more cost-effective way of fighting hunger than soup-kitchens, and cutting SNAP will encourage inefficiency.

If we go the inefficient route, there’ll be much more to pay, though. And this is where the notion of hunger being, above all, an individual phenomenon needs to be dispensed with. It’s true, of course, that it is on individual bodies that the trauma of hunger is written. The costs of disease related to hunger like migraines, upper gastrointestinal tract and even increased colds comes to $4.6 billion. But hunger spawns immense and largely ignored mental health costs.

People living with hunger and food insecurity are five times more likely than average to harbour thoughts of suicide or engage in self-destructive behaviour. Treat that behaviour and factor the lost productivity due to anxiety, depression, and suicide related to hunger, and the bill came to $31.2 billion in 2005. If the food stamp program shrinks, these costs will rise. Even if children come home from school well-fed – which, I say again, absolutely needs to happen – they will not be sheltered from the horrors that hunger inflicts on those who care for them after the school bell rings.

So, what’s hunger’s damage today? It’s not too hard to update the figures from 2005 to 2009. We can leave the level of charitable contributions at 2005 levels because food banks are finding themselves stretched to breaking point since philanthropic funding has remained inadequate because of the recession. Let’s just, as the study’s author’s suggested I do as a quick-and-dirty calculation, simply apply inflation and the increased numbers of hungry to the 2005 figures. The cost of hunger in terms of absenteeism and lost productivity today: $14.5 billion. Illness: $105.1 billion. Added to the $14.4 billion charitable cost of hunger, the total is $134 billion in 2009.

To put this all into perspective, we know from the OMB that the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts will be $5 trillion over the next ten years. American children are being hurt by hunger. Their families are too. The idea of choosing between them would be morally repugnant if, indeed, it were a choice – but what becomes increasingly clear when you look both at the economics and sociology of hunger is that you can’t save one group without saving the other. There is no Sophie’s Choice here – there are simply degrees of harm that we allow to be inflicted on the poor.

The Senate’s absurd idea bill presents the shifting around of harm as a choice. The challenge to the food movement is to organize to reject the choice. I don’t underestimate how hard that will be, especially under a Republican House. But poor families won’t become any less deserving in 2013 than they are now – indeed, with unemployment benefits severed, yet with the recovery largely jobless, their need will be greater than ever. The Democratic House still has a chance in the final days of the 111th Congress, to find alternative sources of funding for the school lunch program. There is an $8 billion-over-ten-years version of the bill that might still be passed without cuts to SNAP. Set next to the very conservatively-calculated toll for hunger in America, the question isn’t whether to accept the Senate version, but how we can afford not to end hunger here.