The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a grim report Monday which indicates that, during some time in 2008, 17 million households experienced problems in securing enough food to eat. That number is up from 13 million households in 2007. This news is fairly alarming in a nation as rich as the U.S. and speaks rather negatively about the policy response to the recession.

Here are a few charts, showing the results:

Food shortage 2008 - 1.PNG

This is the central chart: that 14.6% is the 17 million households I mentioned above. That's a pretty significant portion of Americans. This chart provides a historical perspective:

Food shortage 2008 - 2.PNG

When the recession began in 2007, the percentage of households having trouble getting enough food was a relatively small 11.1%. 2008's percentage was 3.5% higher -- and far higher than the USDA has seen since it began keeping records in 1995.

Given the current economic environment, I'm not sure that an increase should be so surprising. After all, at the end of 2008, the national unemployment rate was 7.2%, compared to just 4.9% at the end of 2007.

Yet, a great deal of government intervention has attempted to provide relief to the unemployed. Benefits have been extended again and again. So it might seem surprising that the percentage of households having trouble securing sufficient food has increased by a larger percentage (3.5%) than the increase in unemployment (2.3%).

This could have something to do with how the USDA survey was taken. More than 7.2% of Americans were unemployed at some point in 2008. Obviously some were unemployed for a time and found new jobs. But that's the phrasing of the USDA survey -- whether your household experienced a food shortage at some point in 2008.

Or maybe it has more to do with underemployment. The national unemployment rate fails to take into account those who were forced to take cuts in hours or pay -- both of which would also affect the amount of money people have to purchase food.

Unfortunately, I'd be shocked if the numbers didn't look even worse for 2009. The national unemployment rate has increased from 7.2% at the end of 2008 to 10.2% in October. Broader measures of underemployment are even scarier.

If unemployment benefits aren't taking care of this problem -- and I don't know how they could be given more workers forced to work part-time or accept less pay -- then the government might consider instead taking more time to address underemployment. For example, one suggestion could to broaden temporary food stamp programs until the economy improves. Any solutions should also take special care to target children: this problem is most serious for them, as they can sometimes suffer development issues if their nutritional needs are not met.

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