Is hunger getting over the hump?


The SWS survey finding on hunger in 2014Q4 (“Hunger falls to 17.2% of families; Moderate Hunger 13.2%, Severe Hunger 4.1%,”, 1/23/2015), was already part of the SWS 2015 Survey Review, publicly presented on Jan. 21. Together with hunger percentages in the first three quarters of 17.8, 16.3, and 22.0, respectively, the fourth quarter’s figure brought the average hunger rate for the full year 2014 to 18.3 percent.

As shown in the chart here, the annual family hunger rate has now fallen twice from its peak of 19.9 percent in 2012—first to 19.5 in 2013, and then to 18.3 in 2014. The annual average percentage of 18.3 is the lowest in the last seven years, ever since 2008. It was at 17.9 in 2007, during the relentless worsening of the family hunger rate every year, from its all-time low of 7.0 in 2003 to its peak of 19.9 in 2012.

Now, after two successive declines, can it be that hunger is getting over the hump? One certainly hopes so, and can ascertain it if the downward trend in hunger continues in quarters to come. It won’t take too long to find out.

The chart in this piece is based on the SWS quarterly surveys on hunger, which started in 1998 and have continued since then—four rounds per year, in 17 years, makes a total of 68 SWS national surveys on hunger so far. It was included by Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, in his Thursday afternoon talk on the state of the Philippine economy, among his reasons why the Philippines is no longer “the sick man” of the region.

Earlier that day, Secretary Balisacan announced that the GDP grew by 6.1 percent (annualized) in the fourth quarter of 2014. In the afternoon audience were economists, friends of mine, who had placed bets on what the latest quarterly GDP growth would be. So I asked them, “Why don’t you likewise place bets on the quarterly poverty rate, or the quarterly hunger rate?”

The declines in average hunger in 2013 and 2014, as measured by the SWS surveys, cannot be attributed to economic growth, because hunger (and also poverty) is strongly correlated to inflation in the cost of living, not to GDP.

Secretary Balisacan said that the government has recently adjusted its expected annual inflation range to 2-4 percent, down from 3-5 percent. I recommended to him that the government should even aim for 1-3 percent. Every point-fall in inflation helps the poor a lot. Computing an elasticity of poverty to inflation is more sensible than computing an elasticity of poverty to economic growth.

The simple reason why the government has a hard time learning how to fight hunger is this: It gathers its own data so seldom. The National

Nutrition Surveys are fielded only every five years, the latest being in 2013 and 2008. The government data are enough to confirm that the magnitude of hunger is serious, but too scarce to be able to track changes quickly.

A Rappler report from the 2013 round says, “Latest PH Nutrition Survey reveals little progress in beating hunger” (by Fritzie Rodriguez, updated 7/10/2014). The figures it reported are not directly about hunger, but about whether children’s body measurements are up to standards. For example, among children of age 0-5, those wasted (too thin for their height) were 7.9 percent, those underweight were 19.8 percent, and those stunted (too short) were 30.3 percent.

In 2008, according to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, 28.6 percent of all mothers and 17.9 percent of all children, nationwide, experienced food insecurity. Persons with food insecurity either: (a) “skipped eating or missed meals,” and/or (b) “were hungry but did not eat,” and/or (c) “did not eat for the whole day.” Category (a) had 26.9 percent of mothers and 16.6 percent of children; category (b) had 16.1 percent of mothers and 11.1 percent of children; and category (c) had 9.5 percent of mothers and 7.5 percent of children. These are worrisome numbers.

The government also had an “Annual” (in parentheses since not really done every year) Poverty

Indicators Survey, which found that 6.3 percent of families interviewed in July 2011 experienced hunger in the past three months “because you did not have money to buy food.” I think that is implausibly small. More importantly, it has no relevance now, being three and half years old.

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