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Framing Hunger in the United States

August 9, 2013
The typical framing of hunger in the United States--as a problem that exists elsewhere.

The typical framing of hunger in the United States–as a problem that exists elsewhere.

As I noted in an earlier post, American tend to view hunger and malnutrition as something that exists elsewhere in the world. Certainly calls from charity groups promote this image, using pictures of fly-covered African children with distended bellies to play on our guilt and solicit support. But what of the estimated 50 million Americans who face food insecurity every month? How are we to understand hunger in the United States?

Hunger in the United States is rooted in a tragic paradox. On the one hand, we are the wealthiest and most agriculturally productive country in the world. We grow more than 300 million metric tons of corn per year, making us first in total corn production in the world. We’re the world’s third largest wheat producer, and it’s twelfth largest rice producer. We produce 21 percent of the world’s beef, 10 percent of the world’s pork, and about 20 percent of the world’s chicken. We’re also the world’s largest agricultural exporter by far, with total export value of more than $113 billion per year.

But at the same time, the United States does a very poor job of ensuring its people are adequately fed. An OECD report ranked the United States 31st (out of 34 countries) in addressing childhood poverty and malnutrition—ahead of only Mexico, Chile, and Turkey.

The challenge, I’m increasingly convinced, is one of framing. First, we cast hunger as a problem that exists in other countries but not here. And then when we do discuss hunger in the United States, it’s generally framed in two problematic ways.

The first (and most powerful) frame is that of individual responsibility. Like obesity, we tend to view hunger as a problem of individual choice and behavior. Social welfare programs must be protected from free riders and abuse. Our news media and political leaders focus on fraud within the system, despite the fact that such abuses constitute an incredibly small in size and rare in occurrence. Congressional debate over renewal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has tended to frame SNAP and other food programs as leading to an “entitlement society” in which people choose dependency on the government over work and individual responsibility.

The reality, of course, is quite different. As SNAP’s defenders regularly point out, the increase in SNAP spending lamented by Congressional conservatives is primarily the result of the recession that began in 2008, not of some broader shift in values. Most SNAP recipients work but earn incomes too low to pay for basic expenses. And independent investigations have repeatedly demonstrated that the level of waste and fraud in the program is less than one percent—far lower than most people believe.

But the (mis)framing of the program as problematic and its recipients as lazy freeloaders conforms to the deeply rooted American belief in individual responsibility and is thus an easier sell than the more complex message of an efficient governmental program addressing real problems.

Second, we tend to view hunger as short-term, emergency rather than as a systemic problem. Again, this framing, while common, is problematic. Hunger in America, as elsewhere, tends to be a protracted problem rooted in poverty. People reliant on food banks, SNAP, and other forms food aid generally require more than just a hot meal. Yet the food relieve system we’ve established focuses exclusively on that dimension only.

What strikes me about the framing of hunger in America is how sharply it diverges from our framing of hunger elsewhere in the world. Why are we able to look at the photo of the hungry African child and recognize that he or she is hungry as a result of factors outside their own control, but when we think of hunger in America, we tend to blame the victim?


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