No one should have to make a cost-benefit case for eliminating hunger. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile thing to do.
Among other things, it raises our awareness of the human and economic wastes we tolerate because we won’t, as a nation, invest enough in programs that would significantly reduce hunger.
A new report from the Center for American Progress takes on the costs of hunger in America in a serious way.
Basically, it meshes data from scientific studies that, in the authors’ view, provide two kinds of “credible evidence” — quantitative estimates of the relationship between food insecurity and its consequences and the economic costs of those consequences.
Costed-out consequences fall into three broad categories:
- Adverse impacts on mental and physical health — both direct costs of medical care and indirect costs like missed work days and premature deaths
- “Poor educational outcomes” and resulting losses in lifetime earnings — the latter becomes “outcomes” like having to repeat a grade lead to higher dropout rates, which in turn generally lead to bottom-of-the-barrel wages
- Charitable donations to nonprofits that serve meals or provide takeaway foods for low-income people
Bottom line when these are all added up: Hunger cost our country $167.5 billion in 2010 — probably more, the authors say, because there aren’t enough data to quantify total health consequences.
The report updates a 2007 study and includes figures from that year. We thus get a read on the hunger-cost impacts of the recession.
These are, as you might guess, significant.
The 2010 hunger “bill” was somewhat over 33% — $42 billion — higher than the bill for 2007. (Note that this does not include increases in federal food assistance costs driven by the rising number of people poor enough to qualify.)
The new CAP report also expands on the 2007 study. It folds in the costs of special education that can be linked to hunger — about $6.4 billion in 2010 alone.
It also breaks out both the 2007 and the 2010 total hunger bills by state. A table for these and also a separately-posted interactive map.
We find, not surprisingly, that hunger costs in some states rose by far higher percentages than others.
Florida and California — both hit disproportionately hard by the recession — top the list with increases of 61.9% and 47.1% respectively. These and 10 other states racked up at least $1 billion more in hunger costs than in 2007.
Here in the District of Columbia, the hunger bill was 21.6% higher than in 2007 — a lower percent increase than in all but 12 states.
But still nothing to cheer about. In dollar terms, hunger cost us locals $60 million more in 2010 than in 2007, giving us a bill of $360.2 million or more than $598 per resident.
The hunger cost authors have relatively little to say about what policymakers could do to make a significant dent in domestic hunger — and thus in the bill we indirectly pay via taxes, charitable contributions, poor health, lost income, etc.
They allude, in general terms, to a mix of policies that “could achieve sustained reductions in hunger and food insecurity” — mainly by boosting the incomes of poor and near-poor workers.
But their primary aim is to “help policymakers gauge the magnitude of the [hunger] problem and the economic benefits of potential solutions.”
Forgive me, but I think this gives our policymakers a whole lot more credit than the vast majority deserve.
This cost study is very interesting. It’s a great source of talking points for advocates and for policymakers who’ve got anti-poverty proposals they want to promote.
But I doubt it will make a whit of difference to those in Congress who want to cut spending on food stamps, job training programs, Pell grants and the like. Or to their state-level counterparts who truly are, as the cliche goes, balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor.
And where are we now? Busting our butts just to save the programs we’ve got.