Hunger costs our country $160 billion a year, Bread for the World reports. That’s more than one and a half times what the federal government spent on all domestic food assistance programs last fiscal year.
And the estimate is very conservative because it reflects only what the analysts could glean from academic studies of the impacts of hunger and food insecurity on health and related costs.
These include health care, of course, but also lost work time due to personal illness or the need to care for a sick family member.
The report, though not the headline figure also includes other indirect costs, i.e., for special education in public schools and dropouts after students had to be absent too much and/or repeat a grade.
Folding these in increases the hunger cost to nearly $179 billion. And as the online intro to the report says, that’s still only partial because we don’t have the research to quantify all relevant costs.
It cites the costs of forgoing prescribed medications — or skipping doses — so as to have more money for food. Also missing from the estimates, it says, are various other health-related “byproducts” of hunger.
These include overweight and obesity, some forms of cancer, deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, calcium and the familiar vitamins, potentially preventable returns to hospitals and mental health problems, though some of these are factored in.
The new study borrows from and updates a similar study conducted in 2010. One would expect high hunger-related costs then, what with so many people out of work and perilously short on money — a problem even for those with temporarily-boosted SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
As you know, the official unemployment rate has dropped. So has the estimate of what it would be if all working-age jobless adults were counted.
But hunger-related health costs have continued to rise. This is especially notable because the prior “hunger bill” included the costs of charitable feeding programs, while the Bread for the World study didn’t.
I’m never comfortable with putting a price tag on the harms deprivation causes. But costs do make for good headlines and may grab the attention of policymakers, especially when they imply potential savings.
It’s still disturbing to see costs attributed to severe, possibly chronic health problems — and to suicide, the third largest item in the latest cost estimate.
How can we put a dollar figure on the suffering of people who did away with themselves or on the grief, guilt and other often devastating emotions of survivors? Or the pangs of accommodating holes in the fabric of their everyday lives?
The leaders of Bread for the World undoubtedly have similar reservations. The organization identifies itself as a “collective Christian voice,” advocating for a world without hunger.
Helping us recognize the shockingly high health costs of hunger and malnutrition may stir us to advocacy and give us ammunition. It may perhaps even change some of our policymakers’ perspectives.
But ensuring that everyone in this country has enough healthful food to eat every day is fundamentally a moral call. We all feel this, I think, whether we affiliate with a religious faith or not.
Yet we’ve got about 48 million people here who at the very least may go hungry — and roughly 17.2 million who at least sometimes do.
Apologies for climbing onto a soapbox. Thinking about hunger, especially when many of us are still recovering from the food excesses of Thanksgiving — and perhaps the shopping aftermath — gets me going.
So to end on a somewhat different note, this is also the time of year when we with the wherewithal often give to the charities of our choice. Our gifts can’t eliminate hunger. We need sufficiently funded government programs for that.
But organizations that feed poor and near-poor people and advocate on their behalf deserve our support. Off the soapbox and onto other issues.