President Joe Biden hosts a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health next Thursday. He promises to “take bold steps to end hunger,” and his summit will likely unleash a torrent of demands for new federal handouts. But neither Biden nor the attendees will admit the vast collateral damage from a 50-year-plus surge of federal food aid.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon held a summit on hunger and received glowing press coverage for proclaiming, “The moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself for all time.” That year, 3 million Americans received food stamps, a burgeoning federal program that cost $228 million. Last year, 41 million people received food stamps, and the program cost $114 billion. Thanks to an array of other subsidies, the federal government is now feeding more than 100 million people.
Yet hunger supposedly remains a grave problem. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, declared Sept. 15: “Almost 40 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
Yet the federal government doesn’t even attempt to collect data on how many Americans actually go hungry. In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences urged the US Department of Agriculture to create a hunger gauge, but the agency’s done nothing on that score. Instead, USDA conducts annual surveys measuring a vaporous notion of “food security” — which can simply mean uncertainty about being able to afford groceries in the future or not being able to afford the organic food one prefers.
That survey is designed to spur perpetual false alarms and demagoguery. The latest survey, released this month, declared that 10% of American households are “food insecure.” Politicians and much of the media take such statistics as proxies for mass hunger despite USDA’s explicit warnings on the limits of the data.
Thanks to federal programs, millions of low-income Americans are undernourished but overfed. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, “We’ve analyzed what [food-stamp] participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes.”
A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found food-stamp recipients twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients. The recipients consume twice as many of their daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages as do higher-income groups (12% vs. 6%), per a 2015 study in Preventive Medicine.
Food stamps have been one of the most tragic bait-and-switches in modern political history. More than 40 years ago, the Congressional Budget Office warned that “it still remains unclear if increased food purchases . . . means improved nutritional status.”
In recent decades, an array of governors and mayors (including New York City’s Mike Bloomberg) sought to amend the food-stamp program to cease paying for junk food. But Washington has always blocked those reforms.
Young children in low-income families are more than 50% more likely to be obese than those in other families, a 2016 report found. While politicians portray hunger as the gravest peril for the poor, “seven times as many [low-income] children are obese as are underweight,” the Journal of the American Medical Association noted in 2012.
The American Journal of Public Health reported in 2017 that food-stamp recipients had double the likelihood of cardio-related mortality and three times the rate of diabetes-related mortality as the general population and sharply higher risks than food-stamp eligible non-recipients.
Expect no candor on food handouts’ collateral damage at the White House summit. In August 2021, the Biden administration tacitly invoked obesity to justify the biggest boost in food-stamp benefits in history. USDA revised its Thrifty Food Plan, which determines Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e, food-stamp) benefit levels, to “reflect current realities providing sufficient energy to support current weight status.”
The American Enterprise Institute’s Angela Rachidi noted, “Giving SNAP participants more money without restrictions will more than likely increase the consumption of unhealthy items, worsening the problems of obesity and disease caused by poor diet.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack justified the higher benefits to prevent beefy mobs from attacking USDA headquarters: “We may have a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence, but if we had 42 million Americans who were going hungry, really hungry, they wouldn’t be happy and there would be political instability.”
The summit will also likely ignore the role of food stamps and other benefit programs in shrinking the workforce. A 2012 Journal of Public Economics study concluded that receiving food stamps sharply reduces single mothers’ work hours. The 2018 Council of Economic Advisers report warned that increased food-stamp enrollment was causing healthy adults to “become increasingly reliant on welfare” and producing “stalled employment growth, in part because of the disincentives welfare programs impose on increasing one’s own income.”
Those disincentives have worsened because the Biden administration last year canceled the requirement for able-bodied adults without children to seek work instead of perpetually relying on food stamps. Secretary Vilsack declared, “Groups with typically higher unemployment, including rural Americans, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and People of Color, and those with less than a high-school education would have been disproportionally harmed by this cruel policy.”
At a time employers were begging people to accept jobs, Team Biden portrayed the necessity of working as a human-rights violation — at least for those categories Vilsack recited.
Media coverage has perennially equated a rising demand for free food with proof of mass hunger. But fighting hunger is profitable for politicians and ritzy nonprofits. Continually encouraging people to seek aid spurs miles-long lines of cars (including fancy late models) at food banks. In reality, the demand for free items (including food stamps) only proves that people like freebies.
If federal spending could abolish hunger, the problem would’ve vanished long ago. Carpet bombing food-stamp recipients with more calories is not even “close enough for government work” if the goal is to improve American nutrition. As long as Biden and other Washington politicians refuse to end the federal junk-food entitlement, all their talk of reform is hogwash.
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.
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