The Myth of Starving Americans
According to the Census Bureau, 96% of parents classified as poor said their children were never hungry.
By WARREN KOZAK, WSJ Opinion, January 30, 2012
We take it as a given that hunger stalks America. We hear it in the news, we see a myriad of government and private organizations set up to feed the hungry. And we are often reminded of the greatest of all ironies—in the richest nation on earth, there are still those without enough to eat. But are these media portrayals of hunger in America accurate?
A hungry child is the ultimate third rail in the entitlement debate. Few candidates—Democrat, Republican or independent—would even question conventional wisdom on this particular issue because that would make them look indifferent to hungry children and that, of course, is political death.
The U.S. government spends close to $1 trillion a year providing cash, food, housing, medical care and services to poor and near-poor people. Of that figure, about $111 billion is spent on food in federal and state programs. Yet despite this spending, stories of rampant hunger persist. With all that money going out, how is that possible?
In a report published last September by the Heritage Foundation, researchers Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield asked that very question. They found that, according to Census Bureau data for 2009 (the most recent year statistics are available), of the almost 50 million Americans classified as poor, 96% of the parents said their children were never hungry. Eighty-three percent of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 82% of poor adults said they were never hungry at any time in 2009 due to a lack of food or money.
One could deduce that the reason the vast percentage of America's poor say they are never hungry is precisely because of federal and state assistance, but the government offers no way of testing whether this is true or false.
What's clear is that the number of Americans on food stamps—as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich pointed out in a recent debate—is at a record high. In 2011, more than 46 million Americans—about one in seven—received food stamps.
Perhaps of greater consequence is the belief of many that food should now be free. In a recent report in the magazine Wisconsin Interest, reporter Mike Nichols discovered that in the 2010-11 school year, approximately 373,000 children received free school lunches in Wisconsin. But there are nowhere near 373,000 kids in the state who come from families falling anywhere near the poverty line. The obvious explanation: A lot of middle-class and upper-middle-class kids are eating lunch at taxpayer expense.
This is not just a Wisconsin phenomenon. Nationally, one out of four school children received a free lunch in 1970, according to the state and federal government data examined by Mr. Nichols. Today, two out of three lunches served in schools are free or nearly free.
The original goal of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s was relatively conservative. LBJ said he wanted to turn the poor from "tax eaters to tax payers." But the opposite seems to have occurred. Where there were once strict guidelines regarding the type of food that was available for food stamps, almost all constraints (save liquor) have been dropped. Even the term food stamps is antiquated—people now use plastic cards that resemble credit cards, thus alleviating any stigma connected to welfare.
Various industries have benefited from food stamps over the years—from the local bodega and chain grocers to America's farmers. In fact, you may soon see today's benefits card used in a restaurant near you. The fast food industry is lobbying Congress to make these cards available in their establishments. That's somewhat irrelevant since benefit cards are already sold for cash, allowing the sellers to buy whatever they please anyway.
Fraud is a major problem, and not just at the federal level. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are currently at odds over whether to continue an anti-fraud attempt to fingerprint benefit recipients. Mr. Bloomberg says it saves millions of taxpayer dollars every year by keeping people from applying for assistance multiple times. Mr. Cuomo says it stigmatizes people and thus keeps hungry children from eating.
But reform is possible. "This isn't rocket science," says Heritage's Mr. Rector. If able-bodied, non-elderly recipients of food stamps were required to work or at least show they are looking for work, the numbers would drop dramatically and poverty would decline as well. "That's exactly what happened under welfare reform in 1996," he says.
The lessons are clear. All it takes is the political leadership.
Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).