Thirty-six percent of college students are going hungry.
That’s the message of a story in yesterday's Washington Post that’s making the rounds. If it’s anything like the “1 in 5 college girls are sexually assaulted” fiction that Joe Biden popularized in 2015, this faux-statistic may soon become conventional wisdom, too.
The “Still Hungry and Homeless In College” report, authored by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, says that 36% of college students it surveyed are experiencing “food insecurity.”
This report, like the infamous Justice Department sexual assault survey from 2007 — and like other similar surveys, is fatally flawed: its methodology and scope precludes its data from being nationally representative, or even scientifically representative of the handful of institutions being surveyed.
The report itself notes that “obtaining the necessary data to create an “institutionally-or-nationally-representative sample was not possible,” and that the results “may not be generalizable on either the institutional or national levels.”
And yet the authors don’t hesitate to propose policy measures of a national scope; policies that would include tens of millions or hundreds of millions or billions of dollars of taxpayer funds.
Predictably, the Post’s reporter, Caitlyn Dewey, merely concedes that “measuring college hunger and homelessness is difficult,” but that the report’s lead author, Temple professor Sarah Goldrick-Rab, thinks her report understates the 36% figure; and that “several education policy analysts not involved with the survey said they believe this is the best national estimate.”
Perhaps, but there are no good national estimates of hunger and homelessness among college students, because, as the report admits, there’s no simple way to measure the data in a nationally-representative fashion.
Take, for example, how Goldrick-Rab’s team collected data: by asking 66 two-year and four-year colleges and universities to invite nearly 600,000 students to complete an e-survey. Of the 600,000 students emailed, 43,000 students, 7.3%, participated.
Because the study was unscientific by design, one doesn’t need a graduate degree in statistics to know that the institutions selected and the students who participated may or may not provide any generalizable data about the nature of hunger among college students.
Furthermore, none of these responses, none of the data, is verifiable. I’m inclined to assume that most of the e-surveys were filled out honestly, but an actual scientific study wouldn’t require the reader to invest that type of faith in basic human decency.
Also, the terms and definitions with which the report measures hunger are questionable. First, “hunger” in no way means starvation. It doesn’t even necessarily mean “hungry.” It hasn’t for a long time, ever since “food insecurity” entered the cultural lexicon — a deceptive term the report defines as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.”
Certainly, there are a small percentage of Americans who are not starving but who, for economic reasons, are eating less food than they should, or more unhealthy food than they should. But there are very, very few truly hungry people in the United States, or in any Western, liberal, capitalist democracy.
In the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2009 report on hunger in America, 98.5% of adults said their children were never hungry at any point that year due to lack of money. And 95.4% of adults said they themselves were never hungry that year due to lack of money.
Mind you, this was during the recession.
“Food insecurity,” though, means a number of things, some of which, like in Temple’s and HOPE’s report, include not being able to afford “balanced” meals, and being “worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more.”
These are both not good things. But they don’t constitute hunger. And to suggest they do, as both the report and The Washington Post does, ranges between disingenuous and intentionally misleading.
It’s difficult to believe that, while a very small percentage of Americans were hungry at any point during the recession, today, in the midst of the strongest U.S. economy in a generation, 36% of college students “don’t have enough to eat,” as The Washington Post headline claims.
In regard to hunger generally in America, it seems somewhat paradoxical that low-income Americans simultaneously suffer from an obesity crisis and a hunger crisis — opposite results stemming from the same cause, poverty. I suppose it’s possible, but it seems more likely that activists with a cause are simply attacking from different angles.
Academic reports like “Still Hungry and Homeless in College” that are authored by organizations and professors with agendas aren’t new, or even troublesome.
The phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics” was, after all, coined in the 19th century.
The trouble is that media outlets like The Washington Post tell us that 36% of college students don’t have enough to eat — a damned lie.