Report reveals economic, social costs of hunger

Social and economic cost of hunger and food insecurity in United States in 2010 was $167.5 billion

Photo/Mike Lovett

Professor Donald Shepard

A new study by researchers at Brandeis University and the Center for American Progress finds that the social and economic cost of hunger and food insecurity in the United States in 2010 was $167.5 billion – in addition to federal expenditures to address hunger.

The report, “Hunger in America, Suffering We All Pay For,” calls this cost America’s hunger bill. Due to the far-reaching impact of hunger, the bill cost every American $542 annually in 2010.

The report indicates that the number of food insecure and hungry Americans jumped by 30 percent from 2007, before onset of the recession, to 2010, the latest data available. In that same period, the cost of hunger, above federal expenditures, rose by more than 33 percent.

“This increase in food insecurity and America’s hunger bill over these three years demonstrates the breadth of suffering associated with this recession,” says Professor Donald Shepard, principal author of the report. “All Americans bear a part of these costs, and all of us will benefit when this burden is reduced.”

The report isolates three major costs that society bears due to rising rates of hunger and food insecurity: illness, poor educational outcomes and the costs of charity. 

Hungry Americans are ill more frequently than other Americans. The resulting cost, including the demands they place on the health care system, was approximately $130.5 billion in 2010, making poor health the largest factor in America’s hunger bill.

The report finds that poor educational outcomes due to hunger cost society $19.2 billion. Putting this expenditure in context, it is more than three times the level of federal funding provided for the nutrition assistance program aimed at young children and their mothers known as the Women Infants and Children program (fiscal 2011 appropriation was $6.6 billion). Co-author Elizabeth Setren added: “Specifically, this report finds that $6.4 billion in special education costs could be avoided by making sure no child was hungry or food insecure.”

“Hunger in America, Suffering We All Pay For” also estimates the cost of charitable donations needed to support emergency food programs across the nation. On top of federal funds for commodities and other emergency food support, $17.8 billion in private donations of food, money, and volunteer time went to meet the emergency food needs of the 48.8 million Americans who confront hunger and food insecurity.

Donna Cooper, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report says, “Every American has a real stake in driving down the numbers of hunger and food insecure Americans. Hunger may not obvious in America but this less visible consequence of rising unemployment, flat wages and growing poverty is becoming a real cost for every American household.”

Estimates of the hunger bill at the state level show that Florida, California and Maryland saw the cost of hunger rise the most during the recession. While the cost of hunger rose in every state, 15 states saw their hunger bill rise by nearly 40 percent compared to the national increase of 33 percent from 2007 to 2010. Twelve states were members of the Billion Dollar Club, where the state’s hunger bill increased by over $1 billion over those three years. 

“Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, School Breakfast and Lunch and the Women’s Infants and Children Nutrition program cost nearly $95 billion,” says Cooper. “These programs are essential but still insufficient to meet the need of millions of American to reliably afford to buy food for themselves or their families. Federal efforts to increase wages, employment and nutritional support to low wage families are the key components needed to push the hunger bill as close to zero as possible.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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