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Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997

CHILD INDICATORS: Childhood Hunger
Eugene M. Lewit Nancy Kerrebrock


Interest in the extent of hunger in the United States has fluctuated over the years. There was little public discussion of the subject during the post-Depression era until the mid-1960s, when unscientific but dramatic media exposés of the extent of hunger in the country helped launch the "war on poverty." By 1979, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Nutrition proclaimed "the virtual defeat of hunger and malnutrition in the United States."1 Yet, by the mid-1980s, following a recession and reductions in federal food assistance programs, the Physicians' Task Force on Hunger in America reported that 20 million Americans were "hungry."2 Current attempts to reform welfare, a focus of this journal issue, and to effect cost savings in food and income support programs for the poor will most likely result in increased attention to the issue of hunger in America, particularly the prevalence and consequences of hunger among children.

This Child Indicators article explores attempts to measure hunger among children and their families in the United States today. Much of the confusion in public policy debates about hunger stems from problems inherent in attempting to define and measure hunger. Hunger, per se, is a subjective sensation resulting from an immediate need for or lack of food, which nearly everyone experiences with some frequency. While the common sensation of hunger is not specifically the subject at hand, recognition of the universal and subjective nature of the concept of hunger does help to underscore the sources of problems and controversies encountered when attempting to assess hunger for purposes of policy.

This article first reviews the different policy-relevant concepts of hunger and discusses how these concepts are operationalized for purposes of measurement. Next, the article looks at the U.S. government's attempts to measure hunger over the past two decades and contrasts these statistics with the most widely reported estimates from advocacy groups. Finally, the article examines the relationship of reported hunger among children to participation in federal programs designed to increase access to food.

Available data summarized in this article show that between 1977 and 1991, from 2% to 4% of households in the United States reported that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. Most of those who reported insufficient food had low incomes, with the rate of reported food insufficiency 10 times higher among individuals in poor families than among individuals in nonpoor families. In the early 1990s, between two million and four million children under 12 years of age did not receive enough to eat. Even participation in federal food programs does not always prevent food insufficiency; as many as 2 in 10 families with children that participate in the Food Stamp Program report that their children are sometimes hungry.