Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hunger Among The Elderly - Red State/Blue State Divide

Much of the time when we discuss the conflict between liberal and conservative policies, we fall back upon iconic flash points: civil rights, the place of government in people's lives, "values," etc. We lose sight of the human casualties in these ideological battles.

Usually, the face of hunger in America is that of a child, or the child's mother and sometimes (young) grandmother who may be raising the child. (Indeed, 4 of every 10 people who use food pantries are children under 18.)

But there is another face of want and it is old, and it promises to get older as the Baby Boom generation ages.

While the problem crosses all geographical and ideological lines, it is most acute in conservative states more likely to embrace "small government" philosophies.

Meals On Wheels has compiled a sobering list state-to-state of the percentage of people 60 to 90 at risk of going hungry. In all, about 6 million older Americans are going hungry on a regular basis. Every day, every night.

The statistics, mind you, bear only on "hunger," and not on good nutrition. It is simple enough to connect the dots between poor nutrition, the aging population and skyrocketing health care costs. Without even tabulating the numbers carefully, we know the cost of not confronting hunger among older people runs well into the tens of billions per year.

Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma headline the hall of shame, ranging from 12.39% at risk in Mississippi to 7.12% in Oklahoma.

The Dakotas fare particularly well, as do many northeastern states. More populous states, aside from Texas and its miserable record - 8.9% of older Texans are hungry - perform somewhere in the middle of the pack. (No state really gets a free pass on this one except perhaps North Dakota at a 1.53% of hunger among older people.)

At first glance, you could believe this is a rich state-poor state imbalance. It's not.

Kentucky, and Tennessee float slightly above the national average, while West Virginia is a bit below. Hawaii, a rich state, is right at the national average.

One can only surmise that it is the relative effectiveness of government (and private) programs that alleviate such conditions - or not.

Above and beyond the misery factor, we face a failure of moral will. Starving our elderly (and children, and people in between) is not humane, and casts doubt on our collective claim to be a civilized society.

An expenditure of $13 billion dollars per year would largely wipe out this problem.* That's about $36 million dollars per day.

By contrast the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost us $312 million per day. A 5% cut in the overall U.S. military budget would end all hunger in the country.

 *An intractable fraction could remain because of issues of the very old who are immobilized due to illness, injury or infirmity and reconfiguring housing, nursing home care, etc. Fully treating with this last remnant would create more costs. See North Dakota above, which has cut its rate to near zero. One could conclude that the communal will is there in ND, but perhaps not the financial resources to reach out to the hard core hungry.

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