Is hunger widespread in America?
To answer that question, we must distinguish between hunger and malnutrition. Malnutrition is a condition of reduced health due to a chronic shortage of calories and nutriments. Thankfully, poverty-induced malnutrition is virtually non-existent in the United States. In fact, poor American children today are super-nourished, growing up to be one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than middle-class kids from the 1950s.
Hunger is a far less severe condition: a temporary, but real, discomfort caused by an empty stomach. The government defines hunger as "the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food." Nearly all hunger in the United States is short-term and episodic. According to official government data, on a typical day fewer than one in 200 Americans will experience hunger due to a lack of money to buy food. During the course of an entire year, around 3 percent of households will experience hunger due to poverty; most will suffer hunger intermittently, two or three times during that period.
Hunger is rarer among children. According to government data, during a whole year, only one child in 200 will miss even a single meal due to family financial shortages. On average, the intake of protein, vitamins and minerals among poor children is virtually indistinguishable from that of upper-middle-class children.
Still, steps can be taken to reduce hunger further. The federal government runs multiple food-aid programs. The most important is food stamps. Unfortunately, food stamps is an old-style welfare program, little changed since the War on Poverty. As such, it is a poor vehicle for fighting either poverty or hunger.
The majority of households receiving food stamps are headed by young able-bodied adults; 70 percent of these individuals perform no work, relying on the government entirely for support. The typical non-elderly recipient has received benefits for more than seven years.
The food stamp program rewards idle dependence and traps individuals in poverty. We should reform food stamps by taking a lesson from the recent success of welfare reform. The core of the pre-reform welfare system was Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which provided cash aid, mainly to single mothers. AFDC gave one-way handouts to able-bodied recipients; beneficiaries were expected to do little or nothing in exchange for assistance; the program promoted dependence rather than self-help.
In the mid 1990s, Congress enacted welfare reform, transforming AFDC. One-way handouts through AFDC were abolished. Aid would still be given, but recipients were expected to search or prepare for work in exchange for assistance. The results? After reform, welfare caseloads plummeted and employment of single mothers skyrocketed. As mothers left welfare and took jobs, their poverty rate declined sharply. One key indicator of success is the poverty rate of children of single mothers. Prior to welfare reform, this rate had remained unchanged for a quarter century; after reform the rate dropped dramatically and is now at the lowest point in U.S. history.
The hunger rate for children also fell sharply. In 1995, prior to reform, government data show there were 887,000 hungry children in America. By 2001, the number had fallen to 467,000.
Like AFDC, the food stamp program gives one-way handouts: beneficiaries are expected to do little or nothing for the aid they receive. Food stamps should be reformed in the same way AFDC was. Food aid should still be given but able-bodied recipients should be expected to search or prepare for employment as a condition for getting assistance.
Critics will oppose reform, charging that there are no jobs available. The same argument was used to stall AFDC reform throughout the '80s and '90s. However, the historical record is clear: If welfare recipients are required to search, prepare and train for jobs, over the long term, employment will rise substantially.
Sound welfare policy should be based on reciprocal obligation: society should provide assistance but should require beneficiaries to prepare for work and self-sufficiency. Transforming food stamps into a program that encourages work rather than idle dependence will benefit both the recipients and society.
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation
Appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer