Hunger Costs America Well Over $160 Billion a Year

November 30, 2015

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.

Hunger Costs U.S. At Least $167.5 Billion A Year

October 31, 2011

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.

After all, we’ve had similar cost studies before — not only for hunger in general, but for child hunger and child poverty.

And where are we now? Busting our butts just to save the programs we’ve got.