Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Paradox of "Food Insecurity"

ERS has its annual report on food insecurity.

There's a paradox here: the number of people receiving food stamps is at an all-time high. The number of "food insecure" people is high.  The number of obese people is high, with the poor having the highest proportion of obesity. This seems to me to amount to a paradox.

What's going on?  To analyze it, there's four characteristics of people:
  1. poverty
  2. "food insecure"
  3. obese
  4. receive food stamp
Receiving food stamps is a binary attribute: you either do or you don't during the time frame, the other three are more scalar, but government surveys convert them into binary attributes.  With 4 attributes, there's 16 possible combinations, ranging from: poor and food insecure and obese and receiving food stamps to not poor and not food insecure and not obese and not receiving food stamps.

It seems we don't have good data to map the distribution of people into those 16 combinations.  We can assume we know how the world works:

 In one conception, the people getting food stamps are the poorest of us; everyone who is really poor gets food stamps and only the poor get food stamps. In that world, everyone who is poor and obese gets food stamps. Implications:
  •  food stamps are well distributed
  • the food insecure get food stamps but don't manage them well.
  • the food insecure are also obese, perhaps because they binge eat.
In another conception of the world, the world of the poor divides into two portions: one set is poor, no food stamps, and food insecure; the other set is poor, gets food stamps, and not food insecure.  Implications:
  • food stamps are poorly distributed
  • food stamps fill their role of preventing hunger and the only social problem is getting all the poor to participate in the food stamp program.
  • NOTE: the missing issue is where are the obese in this conception.  
Now the ERS report says 57 percent of the food insecure participated in a food program (food stamps, WIC, and a third program), but they compare apples and oranges: food insecurity is for a calendar year, participation in food stamps, etc. is for the month before the survey, meaning a family which suffered food insecurity in January, goes on food stamps in July and is surveyed in August would count as food insecure.

What's my point: the ERS work lacks essential information.  Of course, in their defense I can imagine their surveyors would be reluctant to carry a scale and tape measure with them on their interviews so they could check the BMI of the respondents.   One of the prices we pay for privacy is the lack of information to make good policy.

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