Think Progress Exaggerates Child Hunger by 8,000%
By James D. Agresti
May 2, 2014
One of the most heartrending issues in society is child hunger, and polling shows that public support for addressing hunger is “high across party lines, age, race, gender, income, and geographical areas.” However, instead of reporting the facts of this important issue, a number of influential media sources are greatly exaggerating the problem.
One of these sources is Think Progress, which ranks among the nation’s top-15 political websites. In a recent article, Alan Pyke, the Deputy Economic Policy Editor of Think Progress, reports that “more than a fifth of America’s children are going hungry,” government food “programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts,” and “America does a slightly better job at feeding adults” than children.
All of those statements are categorically false according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Census Bureau, and the White House Office of Management and Budget. These primary sources show, for example, that on an average day, less than 1% of U.S. households with children have a child who experiences hunger.
These sources also show that the annual hunger rate for children is lower than adults and that federal spending on food and nutrition programs has risen by more than two thirds since 2007, even after adjusting for inflation and population growth.
Below is the documentation of these facts, along with the details of how Think Progress and others have distorted the truth.
“Food insecure” does not mean “hungry”
The crux of Pyke’s misreporting is that he falsely equates food insecurity with hunger. “Food insecurity” is a technical term used by the USDA to categorize households based upon a survey conducted by the Census Bureau.
This annual survey includes a series of questions about food consumption, and if respondents answer “yes” to at least three of ten questions, their households are classified as food insecure. For example, respondents are asked if they ever “worried” that their “food would run out before” they “got money to buy more.” For another example, they are asked if they “couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.”
According to this survey, 21.6% of children and 15.9% of adults lived in households that were food-insecure at some point during 2012. These are the figures quoted by Pyke, but they do not apply to hunger, especially for children.
The title of Pyke’s article is “More Than A Fifth Of America’s Children Are Going Hungry.” Just to be clear, “hungry” means hungry (not food-insecure), “children” means children (not households), and “going” means currently (not once during the past year). Beyond the standard ten questions in this survey, the Census asked direct questions about child hunger, and the results look nothing like what Pyke reports.
For example, the survey found that 1.5% of households with children had a least one child who was hungry at some point in the year. Likewise, in the 30 days before the survey, 1.04% of households with children had at least one child who was hungry at some point in the month.
Finally, on the average day (i.e., presently), 0.25% of U.S. households with children have at least one child who experiences hunger. In other words, Pyke’s claim that “more than a fifth of America’s children are going hungry” exaggerates child hunger by about 8,000%.
What are the reasons for the disconnect between Pyke’s figure and the government data?
First, as the USDA explains, “Households classified as having low food security” experienced “food access problems,” but they “typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake.” Prior to 2006, the USDA’s label for such households reflected this fact—it was called “food insecure without hunger.”
Second, food insecurity in a household does not necessarily mean food insecurity for the children in that household. Per the USDA, “Not all children 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.”
Third, the USDA emphasizes that “when interpreting food security statistics in this report, it is important to keep in mind that households were classified as having low or very low food security if they experienced the condition at any time during the previous 12 months. The prevalence of these conditions on any given day is far below the corresponding annual prevalence.”
These three factors account for the differential between Pyke’s figure and reality. Furthermore, they undercut his claim that “America does a slightly better job at feeding adults” than children. While average daily hunger rates for adults are not available, 4.7% of survey respondents reported that they were hungry at least once during the year, as opposed to 1.5% for any children in households with children. In other words, the portion of households that report hunger among children is three times lower than that of adults—not higher.
A common falsehood and misinformed public
Pyke is not the only purveyor of inflated hunger statistics. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-Prize winning fact check organization, has alleged that 24.3% of children in Texas were “in hunger” and “according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ‘food insecurity’ means that at some point in a year, someone in a household went hungry because the household couldn’t afford food.”
That claim is in direct opposition to what the USDA explicitly states. Again: “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.”
Other journalists and commentators have also grossly overstated hunger in the U.S. This includes (but is not limited to) Paul Kurtz of CBS News, Bob Beckel of Fox News, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, and Stoyan Zaimov of the Christian Post.
Such widespread misreporting may explain why public opinion on this issue is so far removed from reality. A recent poll commissioned by Just Facts found that only 9% voters know that less than 1% of households with children have a child who experiences hunger on an average day. Contrastingly, 56% of voters believe this figure is above 10%.
Federal spending on food and nutrition programs has grown dramatically
To support his assertion that food assistance “programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts,” Pyke links to an article he wrote that doesn’t even support that claim. This is called a “citation bluff,” which is when someone cites a source to back up a claim, when in fact, the source does not prove it.
The article Pyke cites is about how 16 states are adapting to a recently closed loophole in the food stamp program. This is not a wave of cuts but the closure of a single loophole, which incidentally, was supported by staunch proponents of food stamps, such as the Washington Post editorial board, the New York Times editorial board, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Although it was not mentioned in Pyke’s article, a temporary increase in food stamp benefits enacted in the 2009 stimulus bill expired in November 2013. Such fairly mundane changes hardly amount to a wave of cuts, much less “wave upon wave” of cuts.
In stark contrast to the picture painted by Pyke, federal spending on food and nutrition assistance programs has risen steeply over the past dozen years, growing more than 70% between 2007 and 2013, and more than 120% since 2001—even after adjusting for inflation and population growth:
Thanks for setting the “facts” straight. Very informative and helpful. Interesting on one hand we hear so much about the issue of obesity while on the other hand we have kids supposedly going hungry.
I completely agree with you about the common exaggerated language used by proponents of “feed the hungry” charities. The only thing accomplished by exaggeration is to numb the public. We have to look at the real figures, as you have done here. But getting the right statistics is only the beginning of the task of addressing hunger-related issues in the US. The next step ought to be to seek out the communities in which hunger really is a problem. For example, consider rural communities and their particular needs. In some of those places, hunger is more concentrated.
One more point: we need information about places where people actually would be (or might be) hungry if existing free-food programs were not in place. My impression (based on personal observation) is that a lot of people are fed every day by such organizations.