Last December’s report from Catholic Charities, USA, on the state of the poor is a sobering read for the philanthropic community—indeed, for anyone claiming the title “compassionate.” First, the need for emergency services has been rising dramatically, according to Catholic Charities’ measurements.
What makes the news even worse is that this increased need occurred during an economic boom, when all other boats were apparently being lifted. Coupled with the more stringent provisions of 1996 welfare reform legislation (especially its welfare-to-work features), America’s poor, it seems, find their condition worsening. One can only conjecture about the impact of an economic downturn. In response, Catholic Charities called for more government funding for affordable housing, child care, better wages and benefits, and, especially, food.
How bad is the situation? According to the report, there was a “startling” 22 percent increase in the use of emergency services, including a whopping 32 percent increase in emergency food assistance, between 1998 and 1999. As noted by Fr. Fred Kammer S. J., former president of Catholic Charities, agencies were getting requests from “families that would otherwise go hungry or homeless or both, because they cannot afford even the basics such as rent, food, heat, medicine, or clothes.”
Of course, the government already provides, in the form of U. S. Department of Agriculture programs, about $36 billion a year for food programs for the poor, in addition to massive programs for shelter, energy, and even cash supplements. The need must be great indeed if this vast expenditure of tax dollars is unable to slow dramatic increases over a single year.
A dismal story, but a closer look reveals some difficulties with these claims. First, Catholic Charities really doesn’t know how to measure genuine “need” (nor does anyone else, for that matter). Instead, they track the number of “requests for assistance” reported by 150 member agencies that responded to surveys in 1998 and 1999.
While such requests may reflect actual need, the experience of many welfare experts is that need quickly becomes submerged by wants and desires, which actually motivate the calls for assistance. “Desires” for services may warrant our attention, but when we must allocate resources, “requests for assistance” can be a faulty guide. As welfare critics have pointed out, announcing that free cheese will be distributed at a local market may lead to an increased clamor for cheese, but that tells us little about who is truly suffering.
The picture for hunger is even more obscure, with dubious claims being made on the basis of surveys that hardly examine concrete evidence. In fact, hunger surveys most often measure “food insecurity,” a subjective category. For example, the Cornell University hunger scale defines hunger as “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.” Research using that definition in New York state in 1993 found an astonishing 47 percent of women surveyed were “hungry.” These data were especially shocking considering that America’s number one childhood food problem, even among the poor, is obesity, with real malnutrition being extraordinarily rare.
Moreover, research shows that hunger and homelessness often follow from substance abuse, mental difficulties, poor household management, or bad judgment on the part of parents. In fact, according to a recent analysis from the U. S. Conference of Mayors, 27 percent of the homeless are mentally ill, while 43 percent are substance abusers. Thus, many of those who are ostensibly hungry and homeless are actually suffering from distinct illnesses that cannot be addressed simply through increased funding for food and housing.
The Catholic Charities report also claimed that we were seeing an alarming “trend” in these data, a development apparently impervious to economic booms and busts. Unfortunately, this claim is impossible to substantiate, since there is no comparable data from previous years. Measures from 1998 to 1999 do show an increase in requests, but it has not been determined whether the absolute numbers of those making requests has increased or decreased over time. How many requests for assistance were made during the recession of the early 1990s, for instance? We simply don’t know, since similar survey data are not available (a situation that the new research director at Catholic Charities has sought to correct, to her credit).
The most alarming numbers, such as a 32 percent increase in emergency food assistance, actually resulted from shifting the proportions of a relatively stable resource pie. Catholic Charities divides its services into two shares: social services and emergency services. In 1998, emergency services constituted 56 percent of that pie, with social services taking up the remaining 44 percent.
While it’s true that that proportion shifted in 1999 (emergency services rose to 62 percent of the overall, leaving 38 percent in social services), increasing the emergency services requests by 22 percent, the total number of persons served under both programs increased by just 11 percent from 1998 to 1999.
We should also be cautious about the apparent link between economic success and social failure. The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual report on emergency hunger and homelessness also declared a steep 17 percent rise in need for 2000. But, in 1997, the Conference of Mayors made almost exactly the same claims about the amount of hunger and homelessness in America.
These surveys were conducted during an economic boom, yet nevertheless purported to show an increase in poverty, concluding that “a strong economy has had little or no effect on either hunger or homelessness.” In fact, in each of the 13 years that the Mayors Conference has surveyed the matter, through economic boom and bust, the result has been the same: each year “need” increased, no matter the economic situation.
To paraphrase an old saying, for every complex, vexing social problem, there is a solution that is straightforward, simple, satisfying—and wrong. So it seems with the suffering of the poor. A compassionate concern for children and the desire to alleviate the social conditions that contribute to their plight must be based on meaningful evidence, lest we misdiagnose our real social problems.
David Murray is director of research at the Statistical Assessment Service.