1 in 7 Americans do not go to bed hungry every night

10994332_1683314901901725_8570222415649881675_nTL;DR Summary

  • 12002864_1683314928568389_3647226741225899605_nFalse, yet these posters are used by huge charities to raise “awareness” and funds
  • Relies on a survey that measured “Food insecurity” (not the same as hunger-see below), and leaped from 1 in 7 experienced “food insecurity” at least once in a year to the fictional claim that “1 in 7 people already go to bed hungry”. The assertion that 1 in 7 people go to bed hungry is false.
  • Canadian reporter Daniel Gardner found similar false claims made in Canada.
  • Successful as propaganda messaging due to its message simplicity, and because it has been repeated so often, it sounds plausible, even though it is not true.


These quotes originate from information in a USDA report titled “Household food security in the United States in 2014” (http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1896841/err194.pdf). The report is released each September to coincide with “National Hunger Action Month” and an organized campaign to “wear orange” to fight hunger, and to spread the word on social media with the hash tag‪ #‎HungerAction‬.

The report finds that 48 million people (about 1 in 7) experienced “food insecurity” at some point during the prior 12 months, based on a self reported survey. The assertion that “1 in 7 people already go to bed hungry” is FALSE (“got to bed” implies daily). What the report actually says:

“14% [48 million] … were food insecure at some time during the year. That is, they were, at times, unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food. A majority of food-insecure households avoided substantial reductions or disruptions in food intake, in many cases by relying on a few basic foods and reducing variety in their diets. But 5.6 percent (6.9 million households) had very low food security—that is, they were food insecure to the extent that eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and their food intake reduced, at least some time during the year, because they could not afford enough food. “

At some point during the prior 12 months food insecurity was experienced but “A majority of food-insecure households avoided substantial reductions or disruptions in food intake, in many cases by relying on a few basic foods and reducing variety in their diets.” Food insecurity means they could not eat what they wanted to eat at that time; it does not mean they had nothing to eat.

6.9 million, not 48 million, were at serious risk of hunger at times during the year (not each night as they went to bed) and is a primary group in need.

The report did not measure “hunger” per se:

Food security statistics, as operationally measured for this report using survey data, are based on household responses to items about whether the household was able to obtain enough food to meet their needs. This operational measure does not specifically address whether the household members’ food intake was sufficient for active, healthy lives, the conceptual definition of food security. “

Promoters translated the 14% [48 million] per year “food insecurity” figure into a “1 in 7 per day go hungy” figure, which became an untrue, manufactured “new fact”.

Long ago (and likely up to the present), similar organizations in Canada made the same claims. Daniel Gardner. a reporter at The Ottawa Citizen, and author of “The Science of Fear” disassembles their numbers on page 144-145 of The Science of Fear and summarizes it by writing “A number that Statistics Canada says is not a measure of poverty was used as a measure of poverty; the word “poverty” was changed to “hunger”; and the number was arbitrarily reduced from one in six to one in five“. On page 145, he notes that a US lobbying group in 1991 claimed “one out of eight American children” went hungry. Sound familiar?

There are 6.9 million people for whom lack of access to food leads to genuine hunger. This group is at risk. That is about 1 in 50 – not 1 in 7 or 1 in 6.

The second poster above comes from Feeding America, a $2B non-profit that links together the nation’s food banks and food pantries, engages in fund raising efforts, lobbying activities and organizes the “wear orange” to support #hungeraction. Corporations, such as Con Agra, and others, plus local and national media outlets participate through donations, wearing orange clothing on air, and lending celebrity endorsement to urge people to donate money and food to their local food banks. As Gardner writes, these types of organizations are “irreproachable”, as the organizations told him when he asked them about their numbers, what difference does it make if the numbers are wrong? People are hungry [so who cares if we lie?].

The marketing program is successful as a search for #HungerAction reveals widespread participation because, after all, 48 million Americans are hungry.

This propaganda poster uses the method of asserting a simple, emotionally charged  fact (“1 in 6 struggle with hunger”). The propaganda campaign uses this to enlist celebrity and corporate endorsements and, after similar campaigns every year, this claim sounds “plausible” even though it is not accurate. The propaganda message is successful because of its simplicity – we see this and evaluate it in seconds. It sounds plausible, its a topic about which “virtue signaling” is important, so we Like and Share without questioning.

The claims are a cornerstone of an organized, national propaganda campaign by a multi-billion $ non-profit. From a propaganda success standpoint, this is an A+. From a truth and accuracy standpoint, the 1 in 6 struggle with hunger claim is almost true, if we frame it as at some point during the entire year. It is not true on a daily basis.

Both of these posters were seen on Facebook.

Lessons Learned

When you see “facts” quoted, ask yourself, repeatedly, “What is actually being measured?” This requires digging deep – which your System 1 thinking is going to resist.

We will see the importance of this lesson when we look at some posters about Denmark allegedly being the happiest nation on earth. According to the authors of the study quoted to make that claim, the study measured “well being”, not happiness. The former includes things like income security, and so forth, but not happiness. The authors say they used “happiness” in the report title to get more attention from the news media and increase sales. Seriously.

Similarly, there is a claim that 1 in 4 children in the U.S. live in poverty therefore large number of government actions must be undertaken at once to solve this problem.

This claim depends on how you define poverty. The United Nations created a report which measures inequality, not poverty, but defends its measure of inequality as a measure of poverty. Countries that have a greater range of income appear to have higher poverty, and by the UN’s inequality measure, the U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the world. Except they did not really measure child poverty. Promoters and lobbyists found a big number they could source to a UN report (“Appeal to Authority”), therefore, it must be correct.

Another example is measures of “income inequality”. Measuring income seems like a simple concept but its not. Do you measure income by individuals or by families? Or by households? Do you measure only labor income or do you include capitol income (dividends, interest)? Do you include government transfer payments (pensions, unemployment, numerous aid programs and more) as income? Different methods are used by different economic studies accounting, in part, to different estimates of inequality.

Which gets us back to “What is actually being measured?” From news reports and Facebook posts, what is actually being measured is far from clear. But when used in propaganda posters, it probably does not matter – the goal is to enlist our quick acting System 1 thinking and not for us to question the details.


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