December 23, 2003 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

Hungry for the truth

How many people in America go to bed hungry every night? Too many, of course. We must keep up our battle against hunger until all Americans can readily feed themselves. Still, we can't expect to eliminate a problem until we know how large it is and what caused it.

That's why the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual report on hunger is especially unhelpful. Year after year, it claims an alarming increase in "hunger," which the mayors say they measure by the number of people using emergency food banks. According to the mayors, food-bank use nearly doubles every four years. At that rate, we'll probably have more people eating in soup kitchens than at McDonald's by the end of the decade.

Over the past 17 years, the mayors have reported that food-bank use in U.S. cities has grown at an average rate of 17 percent per year. If that were true, there would be 14 times more people receiving emergency food aid today than there were in 1986. Since about 21 million people receive emergency food today (judging from Agriculture Department data) that means fewer than 1.5 million people received aid in 1986. There's simply no way that's true.

Not surprisingly, the mayors' hunger report is directly contradicted by other, more reliable surveys.

  • For example, the U.S. Census Bureau reports no increase in use of food banks and soup kitchens between 1995 and 2001. By contrast, the Conference of Mayors claims food-pantry use increased by 150 percent in the same period.

  • Surveys by Second Harvest, the major supplier of food banks, showed only a 9 percent increase in emergency food use between 1997 and 2001. The mayors' reports claim such use almost doubled.

In short, other, more thorough studies consistently show the mayors' hunger numbers to be exaggerated. What's more, the Census Bureau and Second Harvest clearly explain how they collected their figures, and how they crunched the numbers. On the contrary, the mayors provide only the sketchiest account of how they collected their numbers, so it's impossible to explain why that report shows such rapid growth in the number of hungry Americans.

But let's remember that the mayors do have an ax to grind. The amount of federal aid they receive is closely related to the amount of need they show. If they start issuing reports stating hunger is declining, lawmakers might decide to trim aid budgets. If, however, the mayors can convince Washington that hunger is rising, they have a good reason for asking Uncle Sam for ever-larger handouts.

So how many Americans are truly hungry? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a typical day, around one American in 200 will go hungry. Over an entire year, 7 million, or 2.4 percent of all Americans, will be hungry at least once. Most of this hunger is temporary and short term; few Americans are malnourished due to lack of food. Importantly, the Agriculture Department reports hunger hasn't increased since the mid -1990's, and that child hunger in particular has declined sharply. All of this is very different from what the Conference of Mayors suggests.

Our nation is struggling to find new ways to reduce hunger, poverty and welfare dependence and increase prosperous self-sufficiency. We've made progress, but there still disagreement over how best to reform welfare and aid the poor. However, there is one thing we should all agree on --- claiming that the sky is falling year after year, as the U.S. Conference of Mayors does, doesn't help anyone.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire