Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What me hungry?

After a wait of far too many years (maybe a topic for another post), a study that Craig Gundersen and I conducted on "Food Insecurity and Insufficiency at Low Levels of Food Expenditures" has been published in the Review of Income and Wealth.

In the fall of each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases a report on food insecurity in the U.S. that describes the prevalence of food problems. News outlets take this report and publish stories on the extent of hunger. For example, this year MSNBC reported
The percentage of U.S. households where adults sometimes go hungry or are unable to put enough food on the table declined last year, United States Department of Agriculture figures released on Wednesday showed.
The food insecurity measures are also used by advocacy groups and the government to describe the needs of households and the effectiveness of assistance programs.

The primary food insecurity measure is constructed from responses to 10 to 18 survey questions that people are asked (10 questions if no children live in the household, and 18 questions otherwise). The questions ask about problems of increasing severity from
We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
the least severe condition to
In the last 12 months did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
the most severe condition. People who answer three or more of the questions affirmatively ("sometimes" or "often" to the frequency questions and "yes" to the yes/no questions) are classified as food insecure, "meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members."

Craig and I were interested in how well the measures actually captured food problems. In particular, several of the questions leave room for subjective judgements (for example, how often is "often"). Respondents may also be embarrassed to report problems to interviewers. In addition, respondents may simply forget about problems that they experienced several months ago.

The survey that USDA uses to measure food insecurity also asks people about other, more objective, and more recent food outcomes, including the amounts that they spent on food in the previous week and in a usual week. Craig and I figured that the amounts that people spent on food should be correlated with their reports of food insecurity and that people with very, very low levels of food spending should report high (actually nearly ubiquitous levels) of food insecurity.

What we found was surprising.

Food insecurity and food expenditures are negatively related, as you would expect. However, the correlation is astonishingly weak. Among people in low-income households, the absolute value of the correlation between food insecurity and weekly food expenditures scaled by household size or food needs is less than 10 percent.

More surprising still, when we focus on households with low incomes and very low levels of food expenditures (e.g., expenditures below half of what the USDA says is the minimum recommended healthy amount for a household), less than 40 percent report being food insecure. In fact, at no point along an objectively-scaled food expenditure distribution do people report food insecurity rates much above 50 percent.

We run some follow-up analyses that indicate that the food expenditure and food needs measures are reliable. We also re-examine the relationships for groups where we can rule out other types of reporting problems. The analyses lead us to the conclusion that the weakness lies in the food insecurity measure itself.

The particular problem is the food insecurity is much likely higher among some especially disadvantaged groups than the reported statistics indicate. As we state at the end of the article,
Our findings that food hardships are under-reported at the low end of the expenditure distribution should be disquieting to researchers and policymakers. The data may be masking genuine distress among the disadvantaged households, and the modest relationship with food expenditures may mean that the food insecurity and insufficiency measures will have difficulty registering increases in well-being from policy innovations and economic improvements.
Hopefully, this will give USDA something to chew on.