Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service put out its latest figures for food insecurity hunger in the U.S. yesterday.  From the press release:

In more than a third of those households that reported difficulty in providing enough food, at least one member did not get enough to eat at some time during the year and normal eating patterns were disrupted due to limited resources. Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas, and rates were substantially higher than the national average among households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children headed by single parents, and African-American and Hispanic households.

Think about that for a second.  Of the roughly 17.4 million hungry households, at least 6.8 million had one person whose “food intake…was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

We are the richest country in the world, at least 6.8 million of us can’t afford to eat on a regular basis.  You’ll hear a lot of talk about access to healthy food, but the fact is that the U.S. hasn’t quite figured out basic access to food of any sort for an alarming number of people.  We might not see malnutrition (although it happens, including among the obese) and starvation on the same scale as other parts of the world, but that does not excuse glossing over the fact there are people in this country who cannot afford to eat.

The report is careful to note that hunger levels have stayed stagnant between 2008 and 2009:

The food security of U.S. households, when measured over the entire year, remained essentially unchanged from 2008 to 2009, with the prevalence of food insecurity at each level of severity remaining at the highest percentage observed since nationally representative food security surveys began in 1995.  However, during the final 30 days covered by the 2009 survey, food insecurity in the severe range (described as very low food security) was somewhat less prevalent than during the corresponding period in 2008. (emphasis mine)

Want to see what else statistics can mask?

The report also states that food insecurity (to use the USDA terminology, which I hate) is “substantially higher than the national average… among Black and Hispanic households.” Nearly 25% of all black households are food insecure as well as almost 27% of Hispanic households AND over 21% of households with kids under 18.  (Puts that whole Child Nutrition Reauthorization fight in context, doesn’t it?)

Earlier this week, I went to the unveiling of Measure of America, the American version of the United Nations’ Human Development Index, put out by the Social Science Research Council.  Both indices use proxy measurements for health, education, and living standards to come up with an number that gives a snapshot of human development in a particular place (the UN’s are here, and the SSRC’s are here).

The US version comes complete with a lot of maps that you can play with, but while I’m on the inequality train, I’d like to highlight a couple of things.  Let’s start with DC.  As DCist stated , life in the District is pretty sweet — DC scores highest out of the top 10 metro areas in the overall Human Development Index (HDI), and the component education and income indices.  Compared to other states, DC is third overall in HDI, and maintains its top rankings in education and income indices.

But if you look closer, those statistics hide massive inequality (the editor’s note on the DCist post hints at this).  An average white baby born in DC can expect to live 12 years longer than an average black  baby.  Despite having the highest education index, DC is tied with Arkansas for the number of adults without a high school degree.  And just over 1% of white DC residents don’t have a high school degree, compared to 19% of black DC residents.

And then there’s New York City.  The greater NYC metro area puts up a more than respectable showing, ranking third among major metro areas in overall HDI, and the education, income, and health indices.  However, New York City also contains the two congressional districts (NY-14 and NY-16) with the highest and lowest income.  Not incidentally, the poorest district, NY-16 in the South Bronx, is also one of the most obese and one of the most hungry.

The inequality isn’t confined to metro areas.  Connecticut (HDI: 6.30) is where the country will be in 2020; West Virginia (HDI: 3.85) is where the country was in 1990.  CA-20 (Fresno, HDI: 2.6) is where the country was in 1970; NY-14 (east side of Manhattan, HDI: 8.79) is where the country will be in 2040- a seventy year developmental difference.  Need it in chart form?  The Economist compares countries to US states.

I point all this out for a couple of reasons.  First, as I mentioned above, we still haven’t figured out how to ensure that people are adequately fed in this country, which is appalling.  Secondly, we talk a lot about disparities on this blog, and I think the HDI illustrates that the root of the problem lies in inequality at birth.  Things like increasing WIC participation and early childhood preschool and can go a long way toward helping reduce that inequality, which sets kids up for something closer to a fair start.  And finally, never, ever, ever take the numbers at face value.  Statistics are useful, but it never hurts to dig a little deeper.


Fur coating and shit.

Latest posts by belmontmedina (see all)

  • what’s your beef with “food insecurity”?

  • Nicole

    I think it’s too clinical and too detached. We don’t say people are “housing insecure,” we say they are homeless. I think “hungry” gets more of an emotional response than “food insecure.”

    • word, i can see that. do you know why food policy wonks/advocates moved toward that terminology?

      • Nicole

        I’m not sure that they moved towards it, I think they just use it (especially in written form) because that’s what USDA uses. When you listen to people talk, especially in meetings and whatnot, you hear “hungry” a lot more.

        • shani-o

          The USDA adoption toward ‘food insecurity’ happened in the last 40 years (60s-70s maybe), according to a book I read on hunger a few years ago. I initially had the same issue you have with it, Nicole, but it’s grown on me because it’s much more precise than ‘hungry.’ Especially since a lot of food insecure people go months at a time with an adequate amount of food, followed by weeks or months without enough food.

          So while it’s kind of clinical, ‘food insecurity’ makes sense to me because hunger is a continuum, not a binary. It also is a great way of saying, hey, it’s more than “these people are hungry,” but also that sometimes they’re not, and they don’t know when they will or won’t have food — which is pretty scary.

          Good post, btw.

  • @Nicole
    Great post.

    My instinctive dismissal of food insecurity (for the same reasons Nicole states) was an emotional one. But your response re: “Food Insecurity” crystallized the difference for me between that term and “hunger” in general. Thinking of hunger as a “continuum, not a binary” opened it up for me…

    So– one of the things that happens to poor people is living in fear of hunger even when not technically hungry.

    So– “food insecurity” can almost be articulated as an ongoing trauma: the physical experience of hunger and the perpetual anxiety over its possibility.

    …And that suddenly makes me think of my father, who grew up poor, and how anxious he got when he thought we didn’t have enough food in the house. It bothered him so much that he took over the grocery shopping from my mother so he could make sure we always had a full pantry. We struggled and lived modestly but always had enough food–a distinction between my dad’s upbringing and mine that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t think much about until just now.

    • Darth Paul

      Food INsecurity is a good term, and yes, that’s a great example of how it goes beyond getting fed.

      Another dismal facet is that the art of cooking wholesomely is diminished. [ie. Mama only had time to throw together frozen or semi-instant/canned foods (chock full of salt, GMOs, and preservatives), so we wouldn’t know how to cook well even if we had the time and money.] Once that’s in place, palates need to be retuned and nutritious food tastes bland or gross…so there’s then no particular desire to eat well.

    • shani-o

      Thanks for sharing, Joseph. And that’s just what I was getting at: For me, “food insecurity” represents an ever-present anxiety around food, not having it, and how you’re going to go about acquiring more, when the food you do have runs out.

      • Nicole

        @shani-o @Joseph- Thanks!

        I do think of hunger as a binary- either you can feed yourself, or you can’t, and if you are at any point worried about where your next meal is coming from, then you can’t feed yourself. I also dislike it because I think getting rid of the binary association, especially in written policy docs (like the USDA reports) makes it easier to ignore the issue. If you’re advocating for policies that feed hungry people, that’s easily digestible and understandable. Making people food secure is less so.

        Also, and this might be getting into the weeds a bit, the idea of “food security” can imply some pretty radical things, at least among the subset of food policy wonks (food justice, food sovereignty- that kind of thing). And while I’m not wholly against some of the things associated with those movements, that’s another reason why I don’t like the term- it can unnecessarily politicize something that is apolitical.

        BUT, to get off the soapbox- what did y’all think of the maps? I find them completely fascinating (and depressing, looking at DC and my hometown congressional district).

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