Sunday, November 23, 2014

An outsized hunger

Math Man gave a public lecture as part of his new professorial chair, and in it he spoke about math and social justice.  He begins every math class he teaches by asking students what world problems they are most concerned about, and then they talk about ways in which math can make an impact.

The next day, over lunch, I was reading an article about immigration reform which noted  "For a rich country, the United States has an unusually high level of food insecurity—a polite term for hunger—in part because hunger is so common among unauthorized immigrant families, who can’t collect SNAP benefits. "

This seemed unlikely to me, given what I know about the demographics of hunger, and the relative populations, so I looked up a few numbers and did a rough calculation. Estimates are (based on surveys in LA and NYC) that 40% of households with undocumented immigrants in them are food insecure. There are about 4 million undocumented immigrant households in the US. About 18 million households are food insecure in the US (15% of all households). If you ignored the undocumented immigrant households completely, 14% of US households would be food insecure. Hunger is common among immigrant household, but those are only a small percentage of the total households. We are a rich nation with a hunger problem that cannot be principally ascribed to undocumented immigrant families.

So why does the author of the Slate piece think the undocumented immigrant population is so large that it accounts for much of the hunger in the US?  Probably because we are not very good at estimating the size of populations, and as this recent study shows, people in the US are particularly bad at it, worse than almost any other country in the world.  If you ask people in the US what percentage of the US population are immigrants, the average guess is 32% while the actual value is 13%.  We think 15% of the population are Muslims (it's 1%).  As a country, our mental image of who our neighbors are is woefully inaccurate, particularly when it comes to those we consider 'other' or troublesome.

I think of Colbert's quip:  “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”  We are a rich nation with an outsized hunger problem.

For more math and social justice in the recent news, Math Man pointed out this analysis of data on Pennsylvania school funding as one example of simple math that uncovers an uncomfortable truth: poor districts with a higher percentage of non-white students get less funding than equally poor school districts with mostly white students.  The math can't tell you why, but it can show you what is — a contemplative stance.

The image is from this post at Macmillan's dictionary blog by Michael Rundell, about the use of the word "hunger."


  1. Excellent clarification of our misinformation which seems to find its way to the media and then be regarded as truth. If everyone were aware of the true figures, would there be such fear of immigration or the Muslim population? The same is true in Canada, I expect. Thanks for bringing some balance into these "facts".

    1. Lynda - yes, fear drives us more than I would wish.

  2. Just one word from me - WOW. OK, two more - thank you.

    1. I fear that we turn a blind eye to hunger in our country, it's not us, it's not our fault, extra people snuck into the country and don't have enough always to eat. The cartoon in the Indianapolis paper early in the week that raised a ruckus is a case in point (