Misdirecting charity by perpetuating the myth of widespread hunger in America

  
Column by Donald J. Boudreaux
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Macy’s lately has taken to displaying in many of its stores a poster claiming that the number of Americans at risk of hunger is one in eight. That’s 12.5 percent of the population. Macy’s hope is that its posters will prompt its customers – who clearly aren’t starving, lest they’d not be shopping for new clothing and kitchen appliances – to contribute to charities that help to feed the alleged 38 million or so Americans who cannot afford to feed themselves.

Desire to help others is noble. It’s noble, though, not in and of itself. It’s noble only if it’s likely to lead to helping others who truly need help. A desire to help others that prompts well-meaning people to address nonexistent problems isn’t so much noble as it is misguided and, possibly, dangerous.

Is the claim that one in eight Americans is seriously at risk of hunger even remotely plausible? No. Food in the U.S. is remarkably inexpensive, which is attested to by the fact that ours is the first society in history whose poor people suffer disproportionately from obesity.

Also, because feeding oneself and one’s family is perhaps the most fundamental of all human impulses, if so many Americans were truly “at risk of hunger” on a regular basis, then it is nearly impossible to explain why poor Americans are so richly endowed with goods and services far less necessary to survival than food.

According to Ralph Rector of the Heritage Foundation:
– 80 percent of poor American households are air-conditioned;
– the typical poor American has more living space than does the average resident of Paris, London, and most other European cities;
– almost 75 percent of poor households own a car and more than 30 percent own two cars;
– nearly 90 percent of poor households have microwave ovens.

People who are truly hungry do not forgo food in order to spend their meager incomes on cars, air conditioning, and consumer electronics. Says Rector:

“As a group, America’s poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.”

These facts simply and irrefutably contradict the notion that a significant number of Americans routinely go hungry. Indeed, we can confidently say that modern industrial capitalism has slain one of history’s greatest killers: starvation. As long as industrial capitalism exists, people who live under it will not starve.

“So what?” you might ask. “What’s wrong with a few white lies if they cause better-off Americans to be more charitable to the poor?” I answer, “There’s plenty wrong with such lies.”

Unlike, say, a tribesman of 25,000 years ago, no citizen of modern societies can observe firsthand the condition of his or her society. Each of us can observe our families, our neighbors, and a handful of other people. However, none of us, not even such a well-traveled citizen as the President of the United States, can possibly observe firsthand more than a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people who are part of our society.

So what we know, or what we think we know, about the condition of society comes overwhelmingly from the press and from popular culture. Because most of the information conveyed by these sources cannot be checked by direct observation, and because checking this information even indirectly (say, by going online to examine reliable data) is time-consuming, whatever the press and popular culture convey stands a good chance of being widely accepted as true, even when it is demonstrably false!

Thus the problem: if many Americans believe that a significant portion of their fellow citizens are truly and regularly hungry, then that belief will prompt not only charitable giving to address a mythical problem, but political responses that address the same mythical problem. Politicians have little incentive to disabuse voters of such myths because the greater the number of “crises” a society is thought to be facing, the greater the demand for government to “do something” to solve these problems.

While in some ways Macy’s motives might be admirable, in a deeper sense they deserve scorn. By perpetuating the myth of widespread hunger in America, Macy’s misleads its customers not only into misdirecting their charity, but also into supporting government policies that serve no one except the politicians and bureaucrats who administer the policies.

 

Donald J. Boudreaux is professor of economics at George Mason University, and senior fellow for economic policy and tax reform at the Virginia Institute for Public Policy.



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