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The Atlas of World Hunger takes a new look at an old problem

In the Atlas of World Hunger," University of Illinois geography professor Thomas Bassett (left) and Illinois agricultural and consumer economics professor Alex Winter-Nelson, developed a new method for assessing hunger, according to the July 6, 2010 news release, "Hunger atlas takes a new look at an old problem." According to a review of the work, "The Atlas of World Hunger - CROP," There's more than enough food produced to provide every living person with a healthy diet.

Hunger atlas takes a new look at an old problem.
Photo credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer. Hunger atlas takes a new look at an old problem.

So why do so many suffer from food shortages, unsafe water, and malnutrition? If you look for answers, one reply you're likely to read is because hunger is a complex political, economic, and ecological phenomenon. The interplay of these forces produces a geography of hunger.

World hunger is often seen as the result of overpopulation, bad geography or natural or human-made disasters. But a new book, "The Atlas of World Hunger," reveals that the contours and causes of hunger are more complex – and in some ways more easily addressed – than those old assumptions suggest. You also can check out the YouTube video, "The Atlas of World Hunger." Or take a look at the map of world hunger at the site, "Atlas of World Hunger."

Its authors, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign geography professor Thomas Bassett and Illinois agricultural and consumer economics professor Alex Winter-Nelson, developed a new method for assessing hunger. Their Hunger Vulnerability Index (HVI) locates the hungry as well as those at risk of falling into hunger. To see an audio slide show about the Hunger Atlas, please go to the University of Illlinois slideshow site.

Food availability

The HVI is made up of three components that reflect the public and private dimensions of hunger: The availability of food at the national level, measured in calories available per capita per day; household access to that food, which is tied to household income; and the nutritional status of individuals – as reflected in specific health measures, such as growth failure in young children.

The authors developed the HVI because other assessments of world hunger, most notably the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's Prevalence of Undernourishment (POU) index, overlooked some regions that were clearly suffering the effects of hunger. The FAO's index also failed to identify some populations that were at high risk of hunger, the authors report.

"One of the things that was really striking to me early when we were doing this mapping was discovering that the POU was showing no problems in places where child malnourishment and child stunting were tremendous problems," Winter-Nelson said in the news release. "That is really what motivated us to come up with the HVI."

The HVI uses a higher threshold of poverty than most other assessments, allowing it to capture those at risk of becoming hungry, he said, according to the news release

"The common idea is if you're living on less than can be purchased in the U.S. for $1.25 in a day, you're extremely poor," Winter-Nelson said, according to the news release. "People under that threshold are almost certainly suffering from hunger and will often be victims of early death because of their poverty. In our analysis, we took a higher threshold of $2 a day to try to capture people who are at risk of falling into that kind of extreme poverty."

The authors looked at a host of factors side by side with the HVI map, to see which variables were most closely associated with hunger vulnerability. Their findings contradict some common assumptions, like the notion that population growth drives hunger.

"Maps are tools to interrogate the problem," Bassett said in the news release. "So, for example, we look at population growth rates around the world and we show that there actually is no strong relationship between population growth and hunger."

The authors also take issue with the idea that wars and natural disasters are a primary cause of hunger

"For us, natural or human-made disasters are exacerbating events that push people into hunger because they are already vulnerable," Bassett said. Drought, for example, does not lead to famine if people "have the resources to cope with disaster," he said, according to the news release.

Of all the factors that influence hunger, access to resources – physical, economic, political and social – is key, the authors report. "The roots of hunger are tangled and complex, but hunger is always closely tied to poverty and social vulnerability," they wrote, according to the news release. "We emphasize poverty and entitlement failure as the most important underlying causes of hunger."

The authors also make a more encouraging observation: They found that regions with high literacy, gender equality, access to health-care services and to technology tend to have lower rates of hunger and hunger vulnerability than other regions

Literacy and access to technology have an obvious impact on hunger, Bassett said, because they enhance an individual's ability to earn enough money to eat well. Other less obvious factors, such as gender equality, also play a significant role in mediating hunger.

"Where gender inequalities are high, hunger vulnerability tends to be high," Bassett said, according to the news release, Hunger atlas takes a new look at an old problem. "That's linked to the fact that women take care of children. And if women's status is low – that is, if their incomes are low – they have little power in the household in decision-making around how money is spent. That's a sign that children are probably going to suffer because women are suffering."

"The Atlas of World Hunger" (University of Chicago Press) provides a new window on hunger, the authors say, showing for the first time the true extent of hunger vulnerability and revealing which efforts to reduce hunger will likely be most fruitful.

Do the wealthy in the USA and in other countries also live hand to mouth?

When the economy hits the skids, government stimulus checks to the poor sometimes follow. Stimulus programs — such as those in 2001, 2008 and 2009 — are designed to boost the economy quickly by getting cash into the hands of people likely to turn around and spend it. Numerous people whose households aren't the poorest in terms of income or net worth, are spending their stimulus checks, but on what? On what do the very poor spend their stimulus cash? A family's got to eat.

About one-third of American households – around 38 million – live hand-to-mouth, although a majority of them are not technically poor because they have assets, albeit illiquid ones, and they respond to stimulus policies in much the same way as those with no assets, says the a new paper's abstract, "The Wealthy Hand-to-Mouth," research by Kaplan, Violante and Weidner,

The paper explains that sending cash to just the very poor may not be the right approach, according to researchers from Princeton University and New York University who analyzed information on the finances of U.S. households from 1989 to 2010. Why not? Cash or a prepaid debit card is what the very poor need to buy basic survival staples such as food, shelter, and necessary clothing. At least that's what comes to mind when you talk to self-described poor people in affordable, neighborhood budget shopping areas.

The wealthy hand-to-mouth

A paper based on the research by Kaplan, Violante and Weidner, "The Wealthy Hand-to-Mouth," presented at a Brookings Institution conference last month looked at fiscal stimulus payments and household balance sheets. The paper is one of three to come out of a project by the researchers focused on understanding the interaction between fiscal stimulus payments and household balance sheets as in households that have the lowest number of liquid assets such as cash or savings rather than home ownership or retirement assets that won't be tapped for years in many cases, for example, when an individual is young or middle-aged.

"What we found is that households that have the lowest liquid wealth — where liquid wealth is defined as basically anything other than housing and retirement accounts — tend to spend a large part of their stimulus checks, but many of those households aren't the poorest in terms of income or net worth," said Greg Kaplan, according to the April 23, 2014 news release, "Princeton release: Not just the poor live hand-to-mouth." Kaplan is an assistant professor of economics at Princeton. "That's the group we call the wealthy hand-to-mouth."

Thirty to 40 percent of U.S. households live hand-to-mouth, consuming all of their disposable income

Two-thirds of those households fall into a category described as the "wealthy hand-to-mouth," according to the work by Kaplan, Giovanni Violante, the William R. Berkley Term Professor of Economics at New York University, and Justin Weidner, a graduate student in economics at Princeton. Ironically the median income of wealthy hand to mouth households is about $40,000 a year.

Interestingly, this author with a master's degree in a liberal arts major, English/creative writing and a community college teacher's credential has never earned anywhere near or even halfway toward that middle-income figure in the past 50 years. There were and are far more English/journalism/creative writing teachers available than jobs available considered full-time or permanent, thereby never really reaching the middle-class as defined by income level. If this author had majored in mathematics instead of English, average pay would have at least reached middle-class levels. Your college major often, but not always, determines what you end up earning by the time you reach this author's present age, in the mid-seventies.

Nowadays like in the early 1970s, it is still rather difficult to find a job that actually uses to the full extent that a graduate degree in English/professional writing skills on a full-time, permanent, and wishfully tenured basis that (in your dreams) could offer. The in your dreams part would consist of a pension, healthcare for a lifetime paid by a government employer, or other retirement benefits and perks from a job. No stimulus has ever reached this household, nor will it.

And it all may go back to whether a person majored in math versus English, which goes back to what courses were taken in high school, for example four years of math and four years of science, plus two foreign languages and four years of English, instead of four years of art and the same of creative writing courses. One job is in higher demand than the other. But alas, young people often can't see around the corner or what's ahead.

They major in what comes easiest or with least effort or what's artistically creative rather than what's most flexible and marketable in quickly changing times, spoken from a person who began college in the late 1950s. But when it comes down to wealthy hand to mouth compared to poor hand to mouth, a lot of people are concerned that they've outlived their savings, yet need to work at home online and get paid enough to cover basic survival expenses, when home means online, not a dressmaking sweatshop.

The noteworthy consideration is that, in the research, the median income of "wealthy hand-to-mouth" households is explained as middle class — roughly $40,000 a year — and they have a median illiquid wealth of about $50,000

Because they have little cash on hand, they react to swings in income more like the poor than like the wealthy, Kaplan said, according to the news release. The poor hand-to-mouth, in contrast, have little cash on hand and little illiquid wealth.

The difference between the middle class hand-to-mouth and the poor hand-to mouth is not only illiquid wealth but for a lot of women with college education, your household wealth in old age is based on who you married when young or middle-aged as well as what you inherited from aging parents, for example houses that went to the wives and children of the oldest male child instead of being divided equally with the female child in a two-child family.

Yet this could be just one example of who ends up in poverty and who ends up inheriting generations of illiquid or liquid wealth based on gender or for women, any inherited wealth or shared wealth from who you marry and what you inherited from relatives if you're over-educated and underemployed, not employed, or married someone with a fixed income and skills/education not in demand.

Kaplan said the research has at least two significant implications for economic stimulus programs.

"The first is in thinking about the optimal way to target stimulus payments in order to get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of spending," he said, according to the news release. "The conventional wisdom has been that you want to give them [stimulus payments] to the poorest of the poor. Our work suggests that to maximize the amount spent you may want to pay out to people at middle-class levels of income as well as the lowest levels."

Another important implication, Kaplan said, is that while the wealthy hand-to-mouth are as likely to spend small stimulus checks as their poorer counterparts, the same is not true for larger stimulus checks

As the size of the payout increases, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are more likely to begin saving some of the money, reducing its effectiveness as a boost to the economy. But why would a household with substantial illiquid wealth find itself short of cash?

Kaplan said, according to the news release, that it can make sense for households to put money in illiquid assets — such as housing or retirement accounts — that offer high returns or substantial value even if it means the households then find themselves with little cash on hand. Can the poor really afford to buy starter homes of their own when investors who live in other cities or other neighborhoods come along and pay all-cash for a house instead of the down payment a first-time buyer can afford on an older house in a working-class neighborhood?

Also, the households may have recently purchased a house, using much of their liquid wealth as a down payment, Kaplan said, in the news release. The researchers found that, on average, households held wealthy hand-to-mouth status for about 3.5 years.

Jonathan Parker, the International Programs Professor in Management and a professor of finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, said the examination of the wealthy hand-to-mouth households highlights policy issues that go beyond economic-stimulus programs

"Overall, this is a very nice example of social science advancing our understanding of how policies aimed at long-term issues like the adequacy of retirement saving have important implications for household liquidity and the ability of people to maintain their current standard of living in the face of adverse income changes or spending demands," Parker said, according to the news release.

The researchers also looked at household finances in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain. The percentage of hand-to-mouth households varied widely from nation to nation, but in all nations most of those who live hand-to-mouth qualify as wealthy hand-to-mouth.

"It seems to be a common phenomenon that if you want to target people with a high propensity to consume, you should look at people who have money tied up in illiquid wealth," Kaplan said, according to the news release. Grant 1127632 from the National Science Foundation supported the research.

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