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Shepard leads research on hunger economics

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: News


The United States is not often thought of as a country suffering from hunger but, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress and Brandeis professor Donald Shepard (HS), 48.8 million Americans live in households without an adequate supply of food.

The new report extends and updates a study that was published in 2007 titled “The Economic Cost of Hunger” and includes data from just prior to the recession as well as from last year. It illustrates how significantly the problem of hunger in the United States has grown since 2007.

“The problem has grown substantially, 85 percent or so, from the 2005 report to the latest numbers we have for 2010,” Shepard said. The number is of food insecure Americans increased 30 percent since the year before the recession­– 12 million more people unable to afford food.

While the department of agriculture was already aware of the number of people living with food insecurity, the CAP report determined the economic losses that arise from hunger. Professor Shepard and three students, including Elizabeth Setren ’10, performed the initial calculations for the new report, analyzing not only the direct cost of hunger, but the costs in time, wages and opportunity as well, “to put a price tag on a problem,” Shepard said.

The study discovered that between medical bills, education and charity, the socio­-economic cost of hunger was $167.5 billion, an increase of 33 percent since 2007.

Poor educational outcome is a large economic cost of hunger, ringing up at $19.2 billion; hunger contributed $6.4 billion to the cost of special education last year alone. The medical costs of food insecurity includes both the direct bills—food insecure Americans are more often ill than others, and indirectly the cost of lost wages during illness, and cost America $130.5 billion. The final portion of cost—charity—are the funds donated in time or money to food banks or emergency food assistance programs, which amounted to $17.8 billion.

To qualify as food insecure, a family had to be in the position of choosing between food and another necessity. Last year, more than half of households that sought emergency food assistance were at some point forced to choose between heating and food, 40 percent claimed to choose between paying rent and buying food, and more than a third reported choosing between medical bills and food. Many welfare families have trouble providing nutritious food, but those who are food insecure cannot provide food at all, even if they qualify for government assistance.

There are problems beyond being unable to buy food. “Those who are food insecure, the food they then eat may not be very healthy,” said Shepard, “especially those who are eating sporadically.”

Being food insecure does not take into account the quality of the food. “The numbers underestimate the impact of hunger. We’re only looking at those who are food insecure, who don’t have access to food, but many more don’t have access to proper nutrition,” said Setren.

Unemployment is a leading indicator for the rate of hunger. The jobless are not unable to procure food immediately but, when unemployment persists, people often find themselves food insecure the following year. The rates for food insecurity follow behind the percentage unemployed, as reflected in the report’s data.

There are no definite solutions offered in the report, just a general call for greater employment and more comprehensive welfare. “Despite an increase in government programs, the problem has grown substantially,” Shepard explained, citing the dramatic increase in the number of American hungry since the last portion of the research; from approximately 36 billion in 2007 to 48.8 billion last year: “Without them it would have been worse.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded their programs and though they do help to mitigate the problems they do not entirely solve it. The aim of the report was not to suggest policy changes but rather to “better understand the problem and the need for solutions,” said Shepard. What the legislature will decide to do with the CAP’s report is a separate issue.

Shepard advocates an better safety net for those unemployed, as it is the most efficient and direct way to protect families from falling into hunger. The cost of the program would not be as expensive as forgoing it. Currently, every American pays $542 per annum toward the cost of hunger.