Some Food for Thought on Thanksgiving Giving

November 19, 2011

Editors: This week’s column is set for immediate release to accommodate holiday publishing schedules (527 words)

Earlier this year I received an email from a charitable organization. It began in bold typeface with this: “Hunger and Poverty continue to plague America . . .” The missive then referred to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report indicating that “nearly 49 million Americans including 16.2 million children are struggling to get enough to eat.”

A close perusal of this report and other USDA documents, however, paints a somewhat different picture. The USDA does not have a measure of hunger or of the number of hungry people. In 2006, the agency stopped referring to “hunger” in their reports and now refers to food issues as ones of “household food security.”

Of the 49 million individuals cited, then, only about a third (18 million) are in households deemed to have “very low food security” where “at times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced.” The other 31 million eat adequate amounts but suffer from “anxiety about accessing adequate food” or a “reduced quality, variety and desirability of their diets.”  

We all have empathy with those Americans who worry about feeding their family because of economic circumstances. Their circumstances, though, are quite different from the plight of families with emaciated children on the brink of death from starvation. These later conditions are unfortunately all too common outside the United States.

John Wesley admonished his flock to “earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can.” Folks of all faith perspectives feel called to share their good fortune with others who are less fortunate. But with whom are we called to share?

Suppose you have a windfall of $500 that you choose to dedicate to fighting hunger. Would you send the funds to the local food pantry that could assuage the anxiety, add to the food variety and augment the food consumption of the 5.4 percent of Indiana households suffering from “very low food security?”  Or would you feel compelled to send it to a mission in a far off land that could provide nutrition to those on the margins of survival? And would it matter if the local food charity had no means-tests for its clients? Would it matter if the foreign outpost was ruled by a corrupt and despotic government?

These are not rhetorical questions with clear answers. In my household, I suspect we would split the gift equally between the two causes. But it is arrogance and folly to suppose anyone is so wise or anointed to make such a decision for another person.

All an economist can add to this discussion is the obvious but often-ignored point that like everything else charitable contributions have opportunity costs. It is both a rational and a moral requirement to assess those costs. Our information will never be perfect, yet that is hardly an excuse for inaction.

So without being disparaging or cynical or uncharitable, it is prudent to be just a bit skeptical of the claims of charitable solicitations. As James Madison said: “No man should be the judge of his own cause” — even the mostly saintly tend to overstate their case.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the foundation, teaches economics at Ball State University. Contact him at editor@inpolicy.org.



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