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Just Facts: Think Progress Exaggerates Child Hunger by 8,000%

Media outlets are grossly exaggerating the prevalence of child hunger in the U.S.

Fairmeadow Elementary School second grade student Jonathan Cheng, center, looks at fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. More children would eat lunches and dinners at school under legislation passed Thursday by the House and sent to the president, part of first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood hunger and fight childhood obesity. The $4.5 billion bill approved by the House 264-157 would expand a program that provides full meals after school to all 50 states. It would also try to cut down on greasy foods and extra calories by giving the government power to decide what kinds of foods may be sold in vending machines and lunch lines. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

One of the most heartrending issues in society is child hunger, and polling shows that public support for addressing hunger is "high across party lines, age, race, gender, income, and geographical areas."

However, instead of reporting the facts of this important issue, a number of influential media sources are greatly exaggerating the problem.

One of these sources is Think Progress, which ranks among the nation's top-15 political websites. In a recent article, Alan Pyke, the Deputy Economic Policy Editor of Think Progress, reports that "more than a fifth of America's children are going hungry" and government food "programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts."

Fairmeadow Elementary School second grade student Jonathan Cheng, center, looks at fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. More children would eat lunches and dinners at school under legislation passed Thursday by the House and sent to the president, part of first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood hunger and fight childhood obesity. The $4.5 billion bill approved by the House 264-157 would expand a program that provides full meals after school to all 50 states. It would also try to cut down on greasy foods and extra calories by giving the government power to decide what kinds of foods may be sold in vending machines and lunch lines. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Those statements are categorically false according to data from the federal government.

First, data from the U.S.Department of Agriculture and Census Bureau show that on an average day, less than 1 percent of U.S. households with children have a child who experiences hunger.

Second, data from the White House Office of Management and Budget show that federal spending on food and nutrition programs has risen by more than two thirds since 2007, even after adjusting for inflation and population growth.

Below is the documentation of these facts, along with the details of how Think Progress has distorted the truth.

"Food insecure" Does Not Mean "Hungry"

The crux of Pyke's misreporting is that he falsely equates food insecurity with hunger. "Food insecurity" is a technical term used by the USDA to categorize households based upon a survey conducted by the Census Bureau.

This annual survey includes a series of questions about food consumption, and if respondents answer "yes" to at least three of 10 questions, their households are classified as food insecure. For example, respondents are asked if they ever "worried" that their "food would run out before" they "got money to buy more." For another example, they are asked if they "couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals."

President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle Obama participate in a Thanksgiving service project by handing out food at the Capital Area Food Bank on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

According to this survey, 21.6 percent of children and 15.9 percent of adults lived in households that were food-insecure at some point during 2012. These are the figures quoted by Pyke, but they do not apply to hunger, especially for children.

The title of Pyke's article is "More Than A Fifth Of America's Children Are Going Hungry." Just to be clear, "hungry" means hungry (not food-insecure) and "going" means currently (not once during the past year). Beyond the standard 10 questions in this survey, the Census asked direct questions about child hunger, and the results look nothing like what Pyke reports.

For example, the survey found that 1.5 percent of households with children had a least one child who was hungry at some point in the year. Likewise, in the 30 days before the survey, 1.04 percent of households with children had at least one child who was hungry at some point in the month.

Finally, on the average day (i.e., currently), 0.25 percent of U.S. households with children have at least one child who experiences hunger. In other words, Pyke's claim that "more than a fifth of America's children are going hungry" exaggerates child hunger by about 8,000 percent.

A Common Falsehood and Misinformed Public

Pyke is not the only purveyor of inflated hunger statistics.

PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-Prize winning fact check organization, has alleged that 24.3 percent of children in Texas were "in hunger" and "according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 'food insecurity' means that at some point in a year, someone in a household went hungry because the household couldn’t afford food."

That claim is in direct opposition to what the USDA explicitly states:

"Households classified as having low food security have reported multiple indications of food access problems, but typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake."

Prior to 2006, the USDA's label for such households reflected this fact—it was called "food insecure without hunger."

AP Photo. AP Photo.

Other journalists and commentators have also grossly overstated hunger in the U.S. This includes (but is not limited to) Paul Kurtz of CBS News, Bob Beckel of Fox News, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, and Stoyan Zaimov of the Christian Post.

Such widespread misreporting may explain why public opinion on this issue is so far removed from reality.

A recent poll commissioned by Just Facts found that only 9 percent of voters know that less than 1 percent of households with children have a child who experiences hunger on an average day. Contrastingly, 56 percent of voters believe this figure is above 10 percent.

Federal Spending on Food and Nutrition Programs Has Grown Dramatically

To support his assertion that food assistance "programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts," Pyke links to an article he wrote that doesn't even support that claim. This is called a "citation bluff," which is when someone cites a source to back up a claim, when in fact, the source does not prove it.

The article Pyke cites is about how 16 states are adapting to a recently closed loophole in the food stamp program. This is not a wave of cuts but the closure of a single loophole, which incidentally, was supported by staunch proponents of food stamps, such as The Washington Post editorial board, The New York Times editorial board, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Although it was not mentioned in Pyke's article, a temporary increase in food stamp benefits enacted in the 2009 stimulus bill expired in November 2013. Such fairly mundane changes hardly amount to a wave of cuts, much less "wave upon wave" of cuts.

In stark contrast to the picture painted by Pyke, federal spending on food and nutrition assistance programs has risen steeply over the past dozen years, growing more than 70 percent between 2007 and 2013, and more than 120 percent since 2001—even after adjusting for inflation and population growth:

Courtesy of Just Facts. Courtesy of Just Facts.

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a think tank dedicated to researching and publishing verifiable facts about the leading public policy issues of our time.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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