At the recent AFIT meetings, I presented a paper that received considerable criticism. Criticism, of course, is fine, even desirable. I have to wonder, however, if the source of the criticism, in fact, lay in our own ideological blinders.
The point that received the most criticism was my claim that hunger is not the problem it was once, at least in the West.
The response led me to wonder if I had attacked a sacred cow, if ideology had blinded my fellow institutionalists to changes in the American economy. I know of no way to go about research other than the use theory and facts. I try to confront
ideology wherever I find it, which is usually among mainstream economists. This is not to say that we, too, wear occasionally ideological blinders.
Polanyi refers to the use of hunger as a means of motivating people in the19th century civilization. Polanyi uses hunger as a term for needs generally.
I asserted that the muted response to the financial crisis was, in part, that hunger was no longer the problem it was once. Although the popularity of both Trump and Sanders may reveal up to now a silent, growing response to the crisis
and how it was handled. Its silence, however, is not motivated by hunger.
My point is despite the rise in inequality, most people suffer from too much food, not too little. The United States Department of Agriculture prefers the term food security to hunger, meaning that the people have sufficient calories (2100
calories per day for an adult) to perform their daily functions. The importance of food security cannot be underestimated. Good nutrition improves the ability to avoid and fight disease, improving longevity (See McKeown 1983). Data from the US Department of
Agriculture indicates that food insecurity with hunger increased from 3.1 % in 2001 to 5.7% of households during 2008 and 2009. Overall, food insecurity comprised 19.2 percent of households. The USDA defines food insecurity as households “unable to acquire
adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food” (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory and Singh 2015a, 8). Admittedly, there is a difference between the threat of hunger and hunger itself. In 2014,
nineteen percent of households expressed concern that money until the next check would be insufficient (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory and Singh 2015b, Table S-5, p. 10). Nevertheless, the report surmises that food insecurity in the United States is not
Even so, food insecurity persists among more marginalized groups: minorities, single women with children, low-income groups, and so on.
All of this was resurrected for me by an article in The Wall Street Journal
today titled “Obesity: The New Hunger.” The Journal, of course, is hardly a progressive paper. Nevertheless, we would be remiss to ignore analyses and the facts presented. I do not deny that hunger still exists in America. And the criticisms I received
were anecdotal, which I do not deny. Nor do I deny the increase in inequality and the inability of many people to satisfy other needs. But is hunger the issue that it once was? Or as progressives, are we ignoring the facts? Are we ignoring changes in the nature
of poverty itself?
John P. Watkins
Professor of Economics
1840 South 1300 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84105
Office: 801 832-2628
Cell: 801 550-5834