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One in Eight. Really?
August 25, 2010 Standards of Living

I have very little tolerance for public service announcements on a variety of grounds. One of those grounds is a Buchanan-Tullock ground. I do not view them as harmless little information packets intended to help us live better lives. Perhaps I am too cynical, but there is no question that some group is typically benefiting at the expense of others via the promotion of these things (some of them? all of them?). A second ground is that empirically it has been shown that “better education” does not seem to have any impact on the drug war, crime recidivism, welfare behavior, and a whole lot more. But hey, let’s not let good evidence get in the way of a noble idea (the idea isn’t even noble, but that’s for another day). A third ground would be that it is not clear that this is a necessary or proper role of government – especially given point one above, I do not see that government service announcements should be any more reliable than private ones – at least in the private sphere, there is not any misrepresentation of being an absolutely right authority, individuals would be free to test competing service announcements. Fourth, and the point of this post, is that few people have the time or energy or wherewithal to check whether the darn announcements make sense.

One announcement I’ve been hearing a lot about lately is that one in eight Americans “does not know where their next meal is coming from.” In other words, not only are 12.5% of Americans really poor, they are so poor as to be starving. I’d love to see where the folks at the Ad Council and whatever agency is pushing this got their data from. Why? The most recent Census poverty data reports that 12.5% of all Americans are living at or below the poverty level. For a myriad of reasons this data does not provide nearly the information that a glance might indicate.

The fact that the 12.5% numbers coincide I hope is a coincidence, because if it is not, it shows an awful lack of rigor on the part of the experts. Maybe they get it from places like this.  Really though, they do get it from the government, from someplace like this (read the language describing food insecurity, I think I would qualify). Why do I question the one in eight claim?

  1. The poverty line is adjusted upward each year as the economy grows. In fact, the standard of living (if you can objectify such a thing) of the poor in America today far exceeds that of a middle income American in 1970 (some charts to follow in a future post – here is a glance).
  2. Food is far cheaper today than at any point in American history. It takes only a few hours of work (or of income transfers) each week to purchase a diet that is richer in nutrition, taste and variety than the kings of 150 years ago could have enjoyed.
  3. Most important, even the poorest of the poor spend a lot more money than their “income” indicates. For example, households which earn less than $5,000 per year in total income spent on average $23,000 per year, of which 16.8% (or $3,864) is spent on food. That is $74 per week on food. While this is not exactly living the high life, one can certainly take care of a family of 4 with this kind of budget. My family of 4 likes food a lot, and we probably spend $120 per week on food – my bet is that half of that is “luxury” spending.
  4. Are there not programs in America for the poor? What about food stamps and cash transfer programs? Are the folks on the radio telling me that after we spend $80 billion per year for food assistance, $45 billion per year for housing assistance, $157 billion per year for direct welfare, $262 billion for health care for the poor (and these are only the federal government’s “contributions” it does not include the state or private organizations) are not being used at all? Or are they telling me that those programs are so ineffectual that even after 12.5% of Americans are poor, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to make sure that all 12.5% of them are hungry? Or are we to believe that the non-poor are food insecure? If so, what the heck are people spending their money on? As I’ve written elsewhere, I can get a decent apartment in the city here for about $500 which would accommodate my entire family of 4. If I were poor enough, I could use “free” government schools, “free” Medicaid health care services, buy a used car for the equivalent of $100 per month, spend $150 or so per month on utilities and then have the rest left over to live. So, I could spend $750 per month, or $9,000 per year and my kids could go to school, we could have health care, and we could have crappy transportation (but our own) and a decent roof over our head. Where is the other $14,000 of spending going?

Maybe the problem is worse than I am giving it credit for, I admit that as a possibility. But there is simply no plausible way that 1 in 8 Americans do not know where their next meal is coming from. And if that does happen to be true, that is NOT a problem with the amount of food available, the price of food, or even the income and help available to those who are food insecure. But god forbid a public service announcement took a more cautious view of things, or pointed us to a source to learn more about the “problem.” And just think, some of these “food insecure” people are being taxed to be told that they are food insecure.

"5" Comments
  1. I see far far more poor that appear obese than starving. We are constantly told that we’re both overweight and starving, yet they seem like mutually-exclusive states.

  2. Dr. R. Your numbers are too low, it’s apparently worse than you realized. It’s really 1 in 6! Okay, honestly, do they just make this stuff up?

    The Gentlemen’s Fund – Feeding America
    “Food is a necessity, not an option, yet one in six Americans struggles with hunger — a dramatic 36 percent increase over last year.”
    http://thegentlemensfund.com/charities/view/feeding-america

  3. Speedmaster, perhaps they are right! If you have an abstruse definition of hunger, then I’d argue that at least 80% of people “struggle with hunger” every single day.

    Don’t you? On some days I have class for 6 straight hours, and then have office hours and meetings, so I can go 8 hours or more between meals, and I definitely “Struggle” with hunger. Pity the poor students who catch me on an especially low amount of sugar.

  4. Pingback: The Unbroken Window » Blog Archive » Update: American Hunger has Increased 33% in a Single Year!

  5. Pingback: The Unbroken Window » Blog Archive » Efficiency Math

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