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The Hunger Paradox

Monday, May 12, 2008

About 35 million Americans regularly go hungry each year, according to federal statistics. Last year, a Harvard domestic policy expert who studies hunger issues calculated that it would cost about $12 billion annually in federal spending to eliminate hunger through additional funding for food stamps and other nutritional programs.

J. Larry Brown then calculated how much charities spend on fighting hunger through soup kitchens: $14.5 billion. So, about $2.5 billion of spending on hunger each year could be eliminated by ramping up existing federal programs, which have larger efficiencies of scale.

Brown's report, which was funded by the Sodexho Foundation, argues that hunger also has hidden costs in terms of health and productivity, and if those are factored in, the annual cost the nation might actually be paying forhunger may be closer to $90 billion. Why would America choose to pay so much more in charity and hidden costs than directly increasing funding for food stamps and other hunger-alleviation programs for poor people?

"It constitutes a hidden cost, and the public does not see the trade-off," Brown said. "Should we spend $90 billion more per year, or should we kick in $12 billion more to end the problem?"

The difference is that if the federal government paid $12 billion more to eliminate hunger, the cost would be borne by all taxpayers. The cost of running charities, by contrast, are is borne by individual philanthropists and volunteers, and the indirect costs of hunger are borne largely by hungry people themselves.

"What our political leaders have done is opt to have charities feed the hungry -- it constitutes a hidden tax," Brown said. "While it would be much cheaper to do it federally, by privatizing the response, political leaders avoid moral and fiscal responsibility."

-- Shankar Vedantam

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