The Agenda

Hunger and Growth

Graeme Wood addresses food insecurity in the United States in the June 3rd issue of National Review. The article is subscribers-only as of yet, but I thought I’d share his exchanges with Parke Wilde, a food economist at Tufts University, and Neeraj Kaushal of the Columbia University School of Social Work:

Parke Wilde, a food economist at Tufts, points out that food-stamp benefits arrive only once a month, as a matter of federal regulation. Food-stamp families tend to spend their benefits early in the month and get hungry late in the month, when the benefits run out, thanks to poor planning or ne’er-do-well family members who waste resources. If food-stamp programs could parcel their assistance out every couple of weeks instead of once per month, they might impose better planning on recipients and alleviate that last-weekend hunger. So far, this option hasn’t been properly tested at any level.

Perhaps the strangest demographic choice made by the filmmakers was to portray only native-born Americans, when hunger in America is felt disproportionately by newcomers. “We deny food stamps to many of the population most in need,” says Neeraj Kaushal, an economist at Columbia. “For a rich country, the U.S. incidence of food insecurity is very high, and that’s largely because of the high incidence of food insecurity among immigrant families.” (She politely does not even mention the poor in her own native country, India, half of whose population subsists on a total daily income that is a fraction of the food-stamp benefit that left Representative McGovern “cranky.”)

Immigrants to the United States who have been here less than five years are ineligible for food stamps — a policy that might go some distance toward explaining why private charities such as Feeding America end up providing assistance to a whopping one in three Latino families in this country every year. Some immigrant families avoid contact with the government, even to pick up benefits they are legally permitted, for fear that authorities will notice and deport undocumented members of their household. The bluntest tool at our disposal, to ensure that recent immigrants don’t suffer here, would be to just give them food stamps. But of course we could just as easily make our immigration policy friendlier to skilled immigrants and decline to burden ourselves with the hunger of the world’s poor in the first place.

Twice-monthly benefits, streamlined SNAP applications, and revised immigration policies are, unfortunately, the last of the low-hanging fruit, delicious though they may be. The big remaining question — how do we make sure society’s abundance is accessible, especially given that it appears that just giving it to people isn’t sufficient? — has defied easy answers.

Analysts of food insecurity debate whether the problem is ultimately one of logistics (we have the food — now how do we get it to the people who need it at the time they need it?) or one of anti-poverty (how do we get rid of poverty?). Wilde, the Tufts professor, says that we could theoretically just pay for the missing and potentially missing meals of the food-insecure, for a price of a few billion a year. But if you think, as he does, that the problem will persist as long as poverty does, then this solution won’t be enough.

“With the food-centered approach, the common theme is If only we had the heart,” Wilde says. “But hunger is a more daunting problem.” Whatever you think can be done to make people richer (tax cuts? tax increases?), that’s probably going to be your best guess about how to get rid of hunger. But given that we can’t agree on how to end poverty, we probably shouldn’t assume that the solution to hunger is any simpler.

When we discuss food insecurity in the U.S., we tend to focus on food or agricultural policy when in fact we might be better served by focusing on immigration policy, human capital policy, the interaction between family structure and labor market outcomes, and the broader macroeconomic environment. One could argue that seemingly mundane conversations about monetary policy are ultimately conversations about hunger and food insecurity, as the prevalence of both would likely decrease under full employment. 

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