The Cost of Hunger and Poverty
Amid the tense budget climate in Washington, DC, Bread for the World members are urging their elected representatives to form a circle of protection around programs for hungry and poor people when Congress considers legislation to reduce federal deficits.
As people of faith, we know that society should protect its most vulnerable members—not cut programs that help ensure that everyone has basic necessities. This is why we advocate on behalf of "the least of these."
Cutting Nutrition—At a Cost
There are other persuasive reasons to protect safety-net programs. Sometimes we know that a policy is morally wrong but may still assume that otherwise it makes sense. But current proposals to reduce the resources available to hungry and poor people do not make sense.
In our last Bread newsletter, we talked about the necessity of reducing the federal deficit and current proposals to cut programs that support hungry and poor people, such as international food aid or SNAP (formerly food stamps). However, the United States simply does not spend enough on these programs to make a difference in the deficit. For more on why cuts to non-military discretionary spending will not solve the nation's fiscal problems, see "The U.S. Budget: Myths and Realities" at www.bread.org/hunger/budget.
But wouldn't cuts help a little, even if they are just drops in the bucket? Ordinarily, people think of budget cuts as saving money—by definition. But just like an individual trying to save money by skipping preventive maintenance of her furnace or roof or car, cutting safety-net programs doesn't save money because it adds to costs in other areas of the budget.
When full-time, year-round workers do not earn enough to eat fresh vegetables and whole grains regularly, the country's productivity suffers. When millions of children don't have enough nutritious food to concentrate in school, the country's future becomes bleaker. Ample data show that hunger and poverty increase the healthcare costs of adults and children—both now and years down the line. And unlike spending on programs such as WIC, rising healthcare costs are a significant cause of the budget deficit.
Moreover, children (who in the United States are much more likely than adults to live in poverty) are obviously growing and changing. It's quite possible to miss "windows of opportunity" and never be able to fully compensate for them. Perhaps the best-known example is nutrition in infancy: malnutrition before age 2 causes damage that is largely irreversible. Infancy is not the only vulnerable time. Research shows that even relatively brief periods of childhood poverty and/or hunger can cause a person long-term harm, such as completing fewer years of education and earning less as an adult.
Thus, the cost of U.S. hunger and poverty is substantial, not only for individuals but for the country. A 2007 study co-authored by Harry Holzer of Georgetown University found that a conservative estimate of its cost to the economy was $500 billion per year, due largely to lower productivity and higher healthcare costs. Holzer points out that this amount has undoubtedly increased during the recession.
The arguments against cutting international poverty-focused assistance are similar to those against cutting U.S. safety-net programs, but magnified. Spending on international poverty-focused programs is lower than for safety-net programs in the United States (less than 1 percent of the budget) and the consequences of extreme poverty and malnutrition are clearly more severe.
International poverty-focused programs achieve a great deal with modest resources. Lives can literally be saved for a few dollars each—for example, through immunization programs, prenatal care, or antibiotics. Even HIV, a costly illness in the United States, can be treated cost-effectively with antiretroviral therapy in countries where the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, operates. Setting aside for a split second the preventable human suffering involved, the cost of HIV treatment is far less than the cost of supporting a family of orphaned preschoolers until they are old enough to look after themselves, or of replacing the income of the main breadwinner of an extended family with young children and elderly grandparents.
Thus, any savings from budget cuts to non-security discretionary funding would be heavily outweighed by the lost opportunities they create—to build a more productive economy, develop a more educated workforce, raise healthier children, and save lives.