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What’s the cost of letting the poor go hungry?

A study from the Center for American Progress puts the national cost of letting people go hungry or under-nourished at $167.5 billion.
Photo by Steven Guy
A study from the Center for American Progress puts the national cost of letting people go hungry or under-nourished at $167.5 billion.

Society’s cost for helping the poor has long been monetized, though usually in terms of payouts for such things as financial aid for children and other nutritional assistance.

But in these recessionary times of increased poverty in Minnesota and across the nation, there is another way of looking at the costs of hunger: the broader price borne by both individuals and society if its citizens go hungry.

Such expenses include paying for medical and mental health problems related to food deficiencies as well as such services as special education classes in schools.

Considered from that point of view, the cost of hunger in Minnesota is estimated conservatively to be at least $1.26 billion and as higher or higher than $1.62 billion a year, according to a report from the University of Minnesota Food Industry Center that was written for Second Harvest Heartland in late 2010.

A newer, national study pushes costs even higher. Released in October by the progressive Center for American Progress in cooperation with Brandeis University, that study estimates Minnesota’s hunger price tag in terms of higher health care costs and poorer education comes to $2.25 billion a year. Their figures are higher in part because the center includes among costs the value of charitable food donations.

That Center for American Progress study puts the national cost of letting people go hungry or under-nourished at $167.5 billion. 

The consequences
“This is a condition that does have actual consequences,” says Elton Mykerezi, author of Minnesota’s “Cost/Benefit Hunger Impact Study” and an assistant professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. The study’s co-author is Jean Kinsey, a professor emeritus in the same department.

Hunger “predisposes” people to physical health problems, psychological and social dysfunction, increased health care costs and lower productivity in the labor force, according to the landmark Minnesota study.  

“Eliminating these costs will save taxpayer money, help lower the state budget deficit, decrease health care costs, and increase the health and welfare of millions of Minnesotans,” Kinsey blogged last year about the report, which was underwritten by Target.

Mykerezi’s numbers are “very conservative, very careful, with the highest level of certainty,” says Second Harvest Heartland Vice President R. Newell Searle in praising the study. 

Given the increased numbers of the hungry, Mykerezi concedes the costs would be higher today than the study indicates.

Specific hunger effects
Included among the long and serious list of detrimental health effects among youths experiencing ongoing or reoccurring hunger are: iron deficiencies affecting cognitive and physical development, increased depression and suicide among teens, more anti-social behavior, lower math scores and a greater need for special education services in schools.   

Hungry pregnant women are at higher risk of giving birth to underweight babies or children with birth defects. Hungry persons are generally less healthy. Hungry adults are two and one half times as likely to be obese and twice as likely to be diabetic as people exposed to nutritious diets and plenty of food, according to the study.

As a result, Mykerezi says, Minnesotans pay at least $925 million annually in direct medical and medication expenses related to hunger issues. The report goes on to itemize additional costs.  

Empty calories
Unlike in developing countries where the poor struggle to get enough calories daily, in the United States there is widespread availability of food but all too often it is less nutritious and carbohydrate-heavy, he stresses.

In the United States there is always the “possibility of hitting the dollar menu in the fast food restaurant,” when the poor cannot afford healthier fruits, vegetables and protein foods, he explains.

The state report has attracted the attention of many interested in a business approach: spending money in the short term to save money in the long run, the economist says.

In an example of that, the report points out that for each $1 Minnesota invests in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the federal government kicks in $7.50 and Minnesota sees $13.50 “in economic activity that results from hungry individuals spending SNAP dollars in local grocery stores.”  

The Minnesota study evolved from discussions by board members at Second Harvest Heartland, says Searle. Instead of fighting hunger, they set a goal of ending hunger. In doing that they realized the importance of putting a dollar figure to the cost of hunger and so commissioned the study.

Another study in 2008 identified an unfunded gap between what low-income persons paid for food with their own, government and charitable resources and what they needed for a healthy life. Twelve percent of meals were not covered, Seale says.

The cost/benefit report is used by Hunger-Free Minnesota, a statewide campaign to end hunger involving a coalition of business people, community leaders, government policy specialists, communities of faith, food banks, food shelves, other agencies and thousands of volunteers.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 12/21/2011 - 10:19 am.

    This is a really interesting article. Do you have information about how much the state or the federal government spend on food assistance for the poor annually compared to the costs of letting people go hungry? Are there proposals about how much current programs would need to expand to serve more people?

  2. Submitted by Irma Robinson on 12/21/2011 - 10:52 am.

    Feeding the poor is important but what is more important is feeding them the right foods. I work in a grocery store and I see alot of candy, pop, pizza and potato chips go out the door paid by food stamps. Lets not forget the money we are giving them to smoke cigarettes, pot and be drunk most of the time. And buy lottery scratch offs. Some of these people are just plain lazy. They need to eliminate all the just food availability off the food stamps. When kids come in with their friends and buy everyone pop and junk food or candy we end up paying for it. I would like to see our MN gov. crack down on this problem.

  3. Submitted by Paul Hoffinger on 12/21/2011 - 01:00 pm.

    Recent inaction by the Super Committee doesn’t guarantee reduced pressure to make food assistance hard to get for families facing hunger. “Lack of money during the recession” is an excuse many hungry people and others merely accept as “good reason” for malnutrition in our rich country. Welfare for the poor is just not as tolerated as welfare for the rich, paid in special tax breaks and other niceties that result in a lower effective tax rate for the well-off.

    Whether or not we agree with everything said about the “Occupy Movement”, we can tell our members of Congress that we want greater access to food for low-income people. Further, “entitlements” like social security, medicare, and programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit which help millions under the poverty line, also help our economy as well as the recipients. Some “charity” just makes common sense.

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/21/2011 - 03:54 pm.

    Ms. Robinson I wish poor food choices were the only stupid thing that people do but it’s not.

    But if I wanted to regulate against stupidity I think I would start with justifications for war.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/22/2011 - 11:42 am.

    Ms. Robinson, are you aware that a craving for sweets is a sign of malnutrition? I first heard this nearly thirty years ago, and shortly afterward, I volunteered in a meal program for street people, where I was amazed to see the (to me) nauseating amounts of sugar that people were dumping into their coffee.

    Cigarettes suppress feelings of hunger, and for someone who has been economically beaten down all their life, working hard but never able to get ahead, lottery tickets seem to offer the only hope of climbing out of that financial hole.

    A major problem behind the phenomenon you have observed: a lot of people either have no cooking facilities (if they live in motels, as many low-income people do) or have never learned how to cook, due to growing up in dysfunctional families. They don’t realize that you can make a nutritious vegetable soup for a whole family for less than it costs to take everyone out for fast food.

    I once belonged to a food co-op that was located in a low-income area of an East Coast city, and it offered weekend classes on cooking nutritious food on a low budget. That’s a better solution to the problems of malnutrition among the poor than griping about how they’re “wasting” money.

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