Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"If You're Alive in 2005, I Hope You're Exceedingly Thin"

In the last few months we've been treated to a variety of media types telling us the economy is pretty darned good, but their benchmarks for economic improvement seem a little fuzzy. Don't get me wrong -- I can't tell you how thrilled I am that the investment portfolios of the well off are bringing in more money than ever while the rest of us have relatively static, or even declining, incomes.

I'd like to suggest a metric besides GDP or the stock market or whatever else warms the cockles of Daddy Warbucks' heart: food insecurity.

BOSTON, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- At least 38 million U.S. citizens can't count on having enough food throughout the year -- and Tufts University scientists say the number is increasing.

The Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture announced in October that household food insecurity increased last year 2004.

Assistant Professor Parke Wilde of the university's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy said, "This increase represents the largest one-year jump since data collection began in 1995." Wilde, a food economist, tracks household food insecurity, food stamps, and related measures of hunger.

The percentage of U.S. households classified as food insecure rose from 11.2 percent in 2003 to 11.9 percent in 2004. While that one-year increase might not seem like a lot, it represents the fifth consecutive year of worsening food insecurity.

The most troubling thing is that last bit about how food insecurity has been rising for the last few years. (Gee, five consecutive years of more and more people not having enough food? You'd almost think something happened five years ago, something not good . . . .) Add to that the fact that Americans are spending less of their incomes on food than ever, and you see this is not a sign of an economy that's lifting all boats.

I know, this sounds like your typical anti-Bush post: don't like the good news, go find some bad news. Of course I like the good news; I'd rather have the usual indicators going up instead of down. But this is a case where the bad news is real bad. We're not talking about buying a bigger TV for junior's room, we're talking about putting food on the table. Can we really say the economy is improving when more and more Americans are struggling just to get enough to eat?

(By the way, even though it doesn't really fit, I had to use that post title. It's a line from an old British rock song that I like a lot, and the number of days left in 2005 for me to use it is dwindling. Can you name the song?)

Update: Thanks to some friendly prodding by reader Tokyo Joe, I did some more searching for the above-mentioned research paper. You can't get it from the journal in which the paper was published, but you can get it for free from the USDA. Yes, I am an idiot.


Studiodave said...

Was it Karen Carpenter?

Tokyo Joe said...

I gotta call shinanigins on this one. This just doesn't pass the common sense test. I can't see how unemployemnt has dropped nearly 1/2% this year, yet "food insecurity" has risen so sharply. I've never even heard of food insecurity and I truly have to wonder if it really is a valid marker of anything. I do believe that some of Bush's policies have screwed the economy up, but all the well known markers are saying that the economy is getting better (this usually happens at some point. hint: it cyclical). I've said for years that if you want to lie to someone, use statistics. I just can't put too much faith in this stat (as opposed to GDP and unemployment) until i know a lot more about how it is calculated and how it really reflects the state of the US. You might as well just Point Me at the Sky and pick a number out of the air.

Studiodave said...

It does seem that this trend doesn't jive with the rise in obesity.

Mrs_Thrillhous said...

I've never even heard of food insecurity

Read a little about hunger. It's common, and it's everywhere.

Unemployment should be mentioned with employment rates and the number of jobs created. Someone not looking for a job isn't unemployed; he's just someone without a job. The unemployment rate can drop simply if some job-seekers give up.

When there is a steady increase in the number of food-insecure people, while at the same time the average person is spending a progressively smaller amount of their income on food, I think there's just another indicator that the gap between the rich and poor is widening.

Similarly, the average 401(k) balance is $61,000 while "half of all workers have saved less than $25,000 toward retirement." Some people are doing much better than everyone else, and looking at just the average hides the story.

Thrillhous said...

I see what you're saying, TJ. You can always find a statistic that says whatever it is you want to say. (nb: "food insecurity" is simply a stand-in for a more familiar, but less susceptible to measurement, concept: hunger.) Mrs. T shows that even the unemployment numbers are deceiving. I wish I could've seen the actual study itself instead of just that little UPI excerpt about it, but I wasn't able to find a copy. However, the USDA has been keeping track of food insecurity and other measurements of American well-being for a long time now; they even have a whole agency devoted to economic research. You can read some of their fascinating reports at this site.

I guess my point is that the standard measurements of our economy, such as unemployment and GDP, don't tell us much about how real people are doing. For instance, most adults who are below the poverty line actually have full employment. Does employment mean much if you can afford basic necessities? Same thing with GDP. Improved GDP doesn't necessarily mean improved economic conditions for regular people. Most of the benefits of improved GDP are not going to workers or small businesses but to the upper echelon, the big business folks and he of the mighty stock portfolio.

Long story short, the reason I cited "food insecurity," is that it's a measurement of how real people are faring.

By the way, TJ, you are my new hero for the Point Me at the Sky reference. Your check for $40 is in the mail (note: checks will not be honored).

Dave, all you did was made me feel bad (for laughing at the Karen Carpenter reference).

Smitty said...

In my real day-job, I'm a lobbyist. One of my clients is the Food Bank COuncil of Michigan. Food insecurity is a measure they've been using for some time now. I can try to dig up how it's calculated and what it'r relevent to, if anyone is in a crushing hurry to see it.

The rise in obesity absolutely jives with food insecurity. Part of that calculation is GOOD food at the table. What the rise in obesity means, especially for those at or below the pverty level, is that they are not buying lean cuts of beef, skinless chicken breasts and raddiccio. They are subsisting on ho-hos and little debbie snack cakes because those are priced in their price range. A head of lettuce may not be.

Thrillhous said...

Lobbyist for a food bank? Can't be much money in that. Damn Smitty, what are you, a commie?

By the way, this may not be news to anyone, but I'm an idiot. Yesterday, I searched high and low on the internet to get that paper summarized by UPI to no avail; turns out all I had to do was search "food insecurity" at the site I linked to in my previous comment. I need to read over the paper in more detail, but it looks like it answers a lot of the questions we have about how they got the data and what all it means.

I wouldn't have found it if you hadn't given me a little pushback, TJ. Thanks!

Studiodave said...

He's probably one of those egg guys. They got to you too, huh?

Smitty said...

Just shy of a commie, thrillhous...maybe a socialist. The firm I work for was created to represent nonprofits, small professional associations and smaller labor unions. No, not much money in it, but I go to sleep at night.

An issue that we're working on is not only the availability of good food at food banks, but lowering produce prices (read: sustainable agriculture), so that a family can purchase good fresh food comfortably.

sideshow bob said...

Unemployment figures, from what I've been told, reflect the amount of people drawing unemployment...once the benefits run out, they are no longer considered unemployed, but they are certainly not in a good situation.

And you got it all wrong...while it's true that scientists have proven that eggs contain cholesterol, it hasn't been conclusively proven that eggs raise the level of serum cholesterol in the blood.

InanimateCarbonRod said...

Wow -- a lobbyist that fights for good? That's like telling me there's an automatic weapon that shoots money at underfunded schools.

Tokyo Joe said...

i hear what you all are saying and even admit my own ignorance in this area )especially in light of Smitty`s expertise, but i:m still not 100% convinced on this one. This is especially true now that i hear that GOOD food is part of the calculation. I know a lot of people who make a handsome living and still eat a ton of garbage because it tastes good, not because they can:t afford anything better. I do not really believe that the obsiety problem in america is only caused by poverty. people eat a lot of fat and the like because it tastes good. I just wonder how this throws off the calculations or if they take that into effect.

also, if you are looking for a really good measure of bush screwing the the common man, i think the annual poverty levels does a great job of this. I don:t have to find the link again, but they don:t look good for the past 5 years.