The American hunger season

December 15, 2015
Low-income people face a 27 percent greater risk of being admitted to a hospital for hypoglycemia during the last week of the month. Bread for the World.

By Derek Schwabe

Farming families in developing countries frequently face a “hunger season” while waiting for the next crop to be ready to harvest. For Americans who are food insecure, there’s often a hunger week.

Ask people in our country who have faced hunger, and they will tell you: the end of the month is typically a hard time. Many Bread advocates with personal experience have said as much. Why? Paychecks and replenishment of nutrition benefits such as SNAP typically come early in the month. That’s when the rent is due, too. So people “run out of money before they run out of month.”

It goes without saying that hunger is bad for human health. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go without saying that our national policies reflect this knowledge. Quantifying “bad for people’s health” can help nudge policies closer to realities. A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that low-income people are 27 percent more likely to be hospitalized for hypoglycemia during the last week of the month than they are in the first week. Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar – a reflection of how well people are eating. Strikingly, another study found that food insecure people consume 10 to 15 percent fewer calories in the last week of the month than in the first week.

It is well established that SNAP benefits, while enormously important as the country’s first line of defense against hunger, do not last the entire month. More fundamentally, millions of Americans simply do not earn enough to feed themselves and their families. The value of wages for most workers has not risen since the 1970s, even though the nation’s productivity and its cost of living have soared. Trying to live on the same income when expenses are rising is a recipe for joining the growing ranks of the working poor. The share of U.S. workers who earn poverty-level wages climbed from 23 percent in 2002 to 28 percent in 2012.

So far, the painful personal stories of more than 45 million Americans have not been enough to persuade policymakers to find lasting solutions – solutions that must include a living wage for all workers and an adequate national nutrition safety net. More and more research findings bolster the case for ending hunger by showing that tolerating hunger and food insecurity is enormously expensive. At a conservative estimate, it adds $160 billion a year to the cost of the U.S. healthcare system alone. That’s the conclusion of a recent study, based on extensive peer-reviewed research, which appears in Bread for the World Institute’s 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect. A quick comparison:  that’s more than the federal government and all state governments combined spend every year on all U.S. public colleges and universities.

Figures like these put hunger on the calendar. Every month, low-income families and the healthcare system alike brace for the last week. All of us are footing the financial costs linked to the unnecessary suffering of some. Better coordination among the healthcare sector, communities, and government can strengthen our responses, enabling us to improve the nation’s health and save money. Provisions in the Affordable Care Act offer encouraging new incentives in this direction (see the 2016 Hunger Report for more on this). But without a national plan that enables workers to earn a living and supports safety net nutrition programs that last the whole month, we will continue to spend at least an extra $160 billion every year – money that most of us would agree the country can’t spare – on the health costs of hunger. The monthly American hunger season will live on.

Derek Schwabe is a research associate at Bread for the World Institute.

It goes without saying that hunger is bad for human health.

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