The Great Recession and the currently tepid economic recovery swelled the ranks of American households confronting hunger and food insecurity by 30 percent. In 2010 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households, meaning they were hungry or faced food insecurity at some point during the year. That’s 12 million more people than faced hunger in 2007, before the recession, and represents 16.1 percent of the U.S. population.
Yet hunger is not readily seen in America. We see neither newscasts showing small American children with distended bellies nor legions of thin, frail people lined up at soup kitchens. That’s primarily because the expansion of the critical federal nutrition assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, helped many families meet some of their household food needs.
But in spite of the increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding, many families still have to make tough choices between a meal and paying for other basic necessities. In 2010 nearly half of the households seeking emergency food assistance reported having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food. Nearly 40 percent said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food. More than a third reported having to choose between their medical bills and food.
What’s more, our research shows that hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion due to the combination of lost economic productivity per year, more expensive public education because of the rising costs of poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed. This $167.5 billion does not include the cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the other key federal nutrition programs, which run at about $94 billion a year.
We call this $167.5 billion America’s hunger bill. In 2010 it cost every citizen $542 due to the far-reaching consequences of hunger in our nation. At the household level the hunger bill came to at least $1,410 in 2010. And because our $167.5 billion estimate is based on a cautious methodology, the actual cost of hunger and food insecurity to our nation is probably higher.
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