Plugged-In Poverty
Media images of homeless families and hungry children distort poverty policy.


Robert Rector

How about hunger? Activists proclaim, “At the end of every day, 17 million children go to bed hungry.” TV news reports wail that America faces a “hunger crisis” in which “nearly one in four kids” is hungry.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducts the nation’s food-consumption and hunger survey, says otherwise. The USDA reports that 988,000 children (or 1.3 percent of all American children) personally experienced very low food security — which means “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” — at any point in 2009.

During the full course of the year, only one child in 67 was reported “hungry,” even temporarily, because the family couldn’t afford enough food. Ninety-nine percent of children did not skip a single meal during 2009 because of lack of financial resources.

The USDA also reports that there is no difference in quality of diet between children from high- and low-income homes.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that no poor family faces temporary food shortages. If food budgets get tight at the end of the month, adults cut back their own food consumption while sparing their kids.

Still, the USDA reports that during all of 2009, less than one poor household in five experienced temporary “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” for lack of financial resources.

Eating too much, not too little, is the major dietary problem faced by poor adults. The majority of poor adults, like the majority of other Americans, are overweight.

None of this means America’s poor live in the lap of luxury. The lifestyle of the typical poor family certainly isn’t opulent. But it is equally far from the images of stark deprivation purveyed by activists and the mainstream media.

If we as a nation are ever to have a sound anti-poverty policy, it must be based on accurate information on the extent, severity, and causes of actual deprivation. Exaggeration and misinformation will benefit neither society, the taxpayer, nor the poor.

— Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation ( and co-author of the new report “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?


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