Earlier this week, a New York Times editorial claimed that 14.5 percent of U.S. households are experiencing “pangs of chronic hunger.” This figure is based on a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It’s misleading, though.
The 14.5 percent figure used by the Times refers to “food insecurity.” But a majority of “food-insecure” individuals report that they were never hungry—for even a day—during 2012. While many food-insecure households may have had to rely “on a few basic foods,” the majority report “few, if any, indicators of reduced food intake.”
In fact, the USDA’s data show that less than 5 percent of adults reported they were hungry for even a single day during 2012 but were unable to eat because they couldn’t afford food. Among children, the number is significantly lower, at 1.5 percent.
Of course, these numbers do not negate the hardship of those Americans that do struggle to put food on the table for themselves and their families. However, all too often in discussions surrounding anti-poverty policy, the facts become distorted.
And now the current discussion surrounding “food insecurity” is being exaggerated to make the claim that any attempt to rein in the growth in food stamp spending would be a tragedy.
But food stamp spending has been on a steep ascent over the past decade or so—recession or not. Spending doubled between 2000 and 2007 and then doubled again between 2008 and 2012. Certainly the growth in the program is partially because of the weak economy, but, as economist Casey Mulligan explains, food stamp growth is also due to policy changes made in recent years that have made it easier for people to get on the rolls.
The food stamps program is in major need of reform, remaining virtually unchanged since it was institutionalized back in the 1970s. It should be reformed on the principle of self-sufficiency. Even during good economic times, work rates among able-bodied food stamp recipients are low.
Society should provide food assistance to those who need it, but this assistance should never simply be a one-way handout. Aid should always be given in a way that encourages beneficiaries to move toward self-sufficiency. To accomplish this, state governments should be required to institute a work requirement for able-bodied food stamp recipients to work, prepare for work, or at least look for work in exchange for receiving assistance.
Sound anti-poverty policy should be based on correct information. And sound anti-poverty policy should promote self-sufficiency for those who are able-bodied. Reforming welfare on the principle of self-reliance respects human dignity and encourages freedom from government dependence.