By James D. Agresti
September 6, 2012
Did you know that “50 million people went hungry last year”? So says CBS News Philadelphia, based upon the claim of a local relief organization, which cites the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as its source. Thankfully, the true figure is a small fraction of this.
The “50 million” figure comes from a newly published USDA survey on food security, which found that “50.1 million people lived in food-insecure households” in 2011. Food-insecurity, however, is not the same as hunger. As the report explains, “Households classified as having low food security have reported multiple indications of food access problems, but typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake.”
In fact, the data in the USDA report and its statistical supplement show that in households classified as “food-insecure,” 73% of the survey respondents did not experience hunger during any point of the year. Yet even this overstates the number of people who experienced hunger. As a footnote in the report reveals:
The food security survey measures food security status at the household level. Not all individuals residing in food-insecure households were directly affected by the households’ food insecurity. … Young children, in particular, are often protected from effects of the households’ food insecurity.
So what did the survey actually find about hunger in the U.S.? In 4.5% of households, survey respondents were hungry at least once during the year because “there wasn’t enough money for food.” This equates to 5.4 million households. Among households with children, 1.3% or 500,000 had a child or children who were hungry at least once during the year.
Regarding chronic hunger, when respondents were asked if they experienced hunger almost every month, the figures were 1.7% or 2.0 million households for adults and 0.4% or 155,212 households for children. On any given day, the average number of respondents who experienced hunger was 0.99% or 1.2 million households, and for children, the average was 0.18% or 69,845 households.
The survey included illegal immigrants, who experience hunger at a much higher rate than the general population, but it did not include homeless people, and per the USDA, this “biases the statistics downward, and the bias may be substantial relative to the estimates, especially for the most severe conditions.”
CBS Philadelphia is not the only news organization to garble the data on hunger. By misinterpreting earlier USDA surveys, Paul Krugman of the New York Times and Bob Beckel of Fox News have made similar false claims about hunger in the United States.