In November, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published an article stating that, over the past thirty years, nearly half of all American children have been on food stamps at one time or another. The authors of the article, Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl, are sociology professors at Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., respectively. Their findings were based on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a long-term survey that has studied 9,000 "representative" American families from 1968 to the present day. Of the children analyzed by the study, 49 percent were on food stamps for at least part of their childhood. Ninety percent of black children and 37 percent of white children in the study used the program.
The Rank/Hirschl analysis undermines some powerful stereotypes about food stamps. While the families in the program were ethnically diverse, the long-term nature of the study automatically weeds out the waves of immigrants that, many critics claim, feed their families at the cost of American taxpayers.
These figures become even more shocking when one considers the number of children who don't take advantage of government food programs, but could. According to Share Our Strength, only 60 percent of people who are eligible for food stamps actually receive them. Similarly, almost half of all children who are eligible for free breakfasts at school don't get those meals.
The USDA term for this problem is "food insecurity," a phenomenon that it characterizes as a "lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources." In 2007, 11.1 percent of the United States was food insecure at least part of the time. More than 4 percent of households were characterized as having "very low food security," meaning that at least one adult family member went hungry or had eating patterns disrupted because of a lack of food access.
Food insecurity problem has major, long-term impacts. For example, over the past ten years, life expectancy for many Americans has dropped significantly; currently, the CIA factbook ranks the United States 50th in the world, behind most of Western Europe. According to the United Nations, we're 38th.
Admittedly, life expectancy is dependent upon multiple variables, including access to health care. A more useful metric might be height, which analysts generally see as a measure of nutrition. Until the 1970's, Americans were the tallest people in the world, but American men are currently ranked ninth, and American women are ranked 15th; on average, we are two inches shorter than the top-ranked Dutch, and lag behind many other European countries.
Surprisingly, studies have also shown a distinct connection between malnourishment and obesity, as lower-cost foods are often high in empty carbohydrates and fats. When given access to more food money -- as through food stamps -- many people will eat larger quantities of low-quality, inexpensive food, rather than spend their money on healthier, more expensive food.
This is a particularly pressing problem right now. From December 2008 to August 2009 (the last month for which statistics are available), every month set a new record for food stamp enrollment. By July, one in every eight Americans was participating in the food stamp program, four states had year-over-year increases that exceeded 40 percent, and eleven states had gone up more than 30 percent from the year before.
Given the ever-increasing enrollment in the food stamps program, it seems likely that the percentage of Americans who receive food stamp benefits at some point in their childhood will rise as well. As with foreclosures, unemployment, and other economic disasters, the face of misery increasingly resembles the face we see in the mirror.
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