What Does It Mean To Starve?

What Does It Mean To Starve?

Back in February, I removed a reader comment from an article called “The Children Are Starving.”

The article’s title was (deliberately) hyperbolic. I was making a point about food insecurity in the US and the absurdity inherent in the fact that a country which issues the world’s reserve currency scores relatively poorly on childhood poverty (figure below).

The US is sandwiched (no pun intended) between Mexico and Chile on an OECD score and sits miles above that metric’s average.

Of course, when I broached the subject, I wasn’t suggesting that large numbers of children in America are experiencing a Biblical famine.

One commenter ostensibly sought to challenge my analysis based on that straw man. If you assume I meant “starving” in the most literal sense, the commenter’s point would have been entirely valid — Americans aren’t literally starving to death, where that means unable to obtain any food (at all) for weeks at a time. As Yuval Noah Harari reminded us in the first several pages of Homo Deus, literal starvation is exceedingly rare in modernity, especially compared to antiquity.

Unfortunately, the comment mentioned here at the outset was couched in what, in my opinion, was discriminatory language — on my reading, it suggested that childhood food insecurity in America can be explained almost entirely by reference to African American mothers who are addicted to drugs. Such a spurious generalization would be akin to saying that obesity in the US is almost entirely attributable to undereducated white fathers stocking their trailer park refrigerators with too much Mountain Dew. Are there kernels of truth buried in those uncouth generalizations? Probably. Is it scientific or in any way conducive to constructive debate about malnutrition? No.

But this debate is topical, to say the least. One of the big selling points for Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” was that it aims to cut childhood poverty in half through a variety of measures.

Given the urgency of the discussion, I wanted to revisit it this weekend from two different angles via a pair of articles, this one being the first (the second can be found here).

The figure (below) is an updated version of a chart I used in February. The green bars show that the initial federal response to COVID-19 immediately reduced childhood poverty in the US. In short, the visual undermines the contention that the government is budget constrained and therefore largely powerless when it comes to ameliorating childhood suffering associated with various sorts of economic deprivation.

In short, the chart shows that the percentage of children in America living below the poverty line actually dropped during the pandemic lockdowns thanks to federal government assistance. “The decrease in poverty during the months when the first major COVID stimulus package was being deployed indicates that lawmakers and Treasury can, in fact, drive down poverty rates literally overnight,” I wrote in February.

The updated figure (above) is derived from a near real-time poverty dashboard maintained by economists Bruce Meyer, from the University of Chicago, and James Sullivan, of Notre Dame.

“In our initial study, we showed that the entire decline in poverty through June can be accounted for by the one-time stimulus checks the federal government issued, predominantly in April and May, and the expansion of unemployment insurance eligibility and benefits,” Meyer and Sullivan reiterated, in their latest update, dated March 18. “In fact, in the absence of these programs, poverty would have risen sharply.”

They went on to write that, as of their most recent analysis, “few households [had] received benefits from [The American Rescue Plan] but we should start to see the impact of these benefits on poverty in the coming months.” How the figure (above) evolves will be interesting to observe.

The chart (below) shows estimates from a Columbia University study on the likely impact of the plan. It’s the same study the Biden administration cited repeatedly, including in official White House literature on the rescue package.

One thing that stuck out (to me anyway) is that if these estimates are even close to accurate, the plan will almost entirely eradicate white childhood poverty. Because of the low relative starting point (an 8.3% baseline projection versus 21.5% for African American children), the estimated 63% decline attributable to the rescue plan means the percentage point reduction in white childhood poverty (5.2 points) takes the rate to just 3.1%.

That shows the power of the federal checkbook — “checkbook” broadly construed, I mean. It’s not just about writing checks and making direct deposits. In addition to direct cash payments, the Columbia analysis took account of enhanced SNAP benefits, unemployment benefits, as well as family and child care tax credits.

“The significance of this moment in US social policy is hard to overstate,” a Brookings article published March 11 read, adding that the projected 50% reduction in the child poverty rate in just one year should be viewed in context. It took a decade to cut the same rate by 26% (it declined from 17% in 2009 to 12.5% in 2019). “The real question now is whether the restructured child tax credit will be maintained for more than a single year,” the same article emphasized.

Coming full circle, and by way of providing a segue into a companion article, we should note that, from a 30,000-foot perspective, humans have managed to largely eradicate actual starvation.

This discussion can seem cruel given real instances of modern famine, but Yuval Noah Harari’s point in Homo Deus wasn’t to downplay the exceptions. Rather, he meant to emphasize that they are, indeed, exceptional. And in most cases are the direct result of power grabs or the extreme politicization of hunger.

“Open any history book and you are likely to come across horrific accounts of famished populations, driven mad by hunger,” Harari wrote, before recounting some examples:

In April 1694 a French official in the town of Beauvais described the impact of famine and of soaring food prices, saying that his entire district was now filled with ‘an infinite number of poor souls, weak from hunger and wretchedness and dying from want, because, having no work or occupation, they lack the money to buy bread. Seeking to prolong their lives a little and somewhat to appease their hunger, these poor folk eat such unclean things as cats and the flesh of horses flayed and cast onto dung heaps. [Others consume] the blood that flows when cows and oxen are slaughtered, and the offal that cooks throw into the streets. Other poor wretches eat nettles and weeds, or roots and herbs which they boil in water.’

Similar scenes took place all over France. Bad weather had ruined the harvests throughout the kingdom in the previous two years, so that by the spring of 1694 the granaries were completely empty. The rich charged exorbitant prices for whatever food they managed to hoard, and the poor died in droves. About 2.8 million French – 15% of the population – starved to death between 1692 and 1694, while the Sun King, Louis XIV, was dallying with his mistresses in Versailles. The following year, 1695, famine struck Estonia, killing a fifth of the population. In 1696 it was the turn of Finland, where a quarter to a third of people died. Scotland suffered from severe famine between 1695 and 1698, some districts losing up to 20% of their inhabitants.

Harari continued, noting that while “mass famines still strike some areas from time to time, they are exceptional [and] even if a person has lost his job and all of his possessions, he is unlikely to die from hunger.”

Again, that may come across as callous, but Harari doesn’t skirt the reality of modern famines or of malnutrition in all its various manifestations. “In the eighteenth century Marie Antoinette allegedly advised the starving masses that if they ran out of bread, they should just eat cake instead,” he wrote, before noting that in modernity, “the poor are following this advice to the letter… gorg[ing] on Twinkies, Cheetos, hamburgers and pizza.”

A million people died in 2010 from famine and malnutrition. That same year, three times that many died from obesity.

“There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines,” Harari said. “If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.”

There’s a lesson in there for America’s politicians, many of whom refuse to support initiatives aimed at alleviating childhood poverty and malnutrition in the US.

7 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Starve?

  1. “There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines,” Harari said. “If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.”

    There’s a lesson in there for America’s politicians, many of whom refuse to support initiatives aimed at alleviating childhood poverty and malnutrition in the US.

    Thank you for these last 2 paragraphs they speak volumes in tandem. It does state the obvious but only lacks one nuance. Religion.

  2. The Swedish statistician, Hans Rosling, in his book, “Factfulness”, looks at the world by categorizing the countries in the world into 4 categories: Level 1 (income under $2/day/per person), Level 2 (income $2-$8/day), Level 3 (income $8-$32/day) and Level 4 ($32+/day).
    In his model he reviews living conditions (birth rate, food, energy, education, transportation, health, etc.) among the various levels and describes what their life looks like an these various levels.
    He presents this model as a more useful framework than dividing global population into “developed” vs, “developing” world because although the majority of countries fall into Level 2 or Level 3- and so starvation is a declining issue- the reader can better understand the world in which we live, especially regarding starvation and other living conditions (eg.- using electricity vs. wood to cook food and low birthrate vs. higher birth rate) and better understand the problems in Level 1-2 countries and how to raise living standards (more education and providing opportunities for people to have a little business).
    Just because children are no longer starving does not mean we do not have to “help” poorer countries anymore.
    We worry about income disparity in the US- but we should also be looking at income disparity between Level 4 countries (US) and the rest of the world.

    1. My understanding is that disparity across countries is sinking, as countries/politicians abandon Soviet-inspired policies and move towards a bit more capitalism (however crony or kleptocratic. Not that their socialist systems weren’t also corrupt/kleptocratic anyway).

    2. Let’s not fall in love with Rosling’s numbers too fast. Level 4 is an income that starts under $12,000 a year. Try to get a realistic budget in the US for that income level. I doubt most people would want to live in, or even visit, the places where that can be done. The per capita GDP in the US is $175/day and we still don’t get millions of our kids fed properly. Remember, for many people obesity is generally not so much a function of overeatring as much as it is the result of eating wrong. The cheapest foods, the ones the poor can afford, are often the most fattening and least nutritious. Poverty mostly hides in this country. More than 90% of the school kids in my home county’s largest and seat city (pop 150k) qualify for the full government “lunch” program (you know the one famous for ketchup being classified as a vegetable). Time to stop trying to create excuses for this problem by blaming someone else for it. The kids aren’t starving because they are lazy or just unlucky. Come on, man!

  3. Between 1960 and 2010 (just 2 generations) Syria’s population increased 4.5 times. Growth in industrial manufacturing and crop production lag far behind population growth. This certainly increases the probability of famine when weather suddenly becomes less favorable.
    The US does not have such a problem. May be, when population reaches 1 billion… but I don’t expect this will happen soon.

  4. But. but. but. To drive down child poverty, you presumably have to lift their parents out of it too? And how can we do that, when adult poverty/wealth is one’s just desert for one’s laziness/striving?

    I mean, I’m joking. I’m not as extreme as Sam Harris but I think luck (genes, environment etc) plays such an outsized role in one’s disposition and place in the social pyramid it makes sense to keep said pyramid very flat indeed.

    But not totally. Even if grit and striving are genetic dispositions just like IQ or EQ, it seems to me worthwhile to reward effort/ingenuity, to some degree. Just in case external motivations turn out to be an important factor…

  5. At last we have another full V-shaped recovery to go along with the equity indices — childhood poverty! Not even Trump thought such a thing would ever be possible.

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