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By Karen Lee Ziner May 18, 2014

R.I. anti-poverty activist says fifty percent of Americans will go hungry at some time in their lives

Millions of people go hungry in the United States every year, despite this being one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

But quantifying the problem is difficult.

Robert Malin, an activist with the newly formed Rhode Island Mobilization Against Poverty, offered his view last month: "Fifty percent of Americans will go hungry at some time in their lives," he said during a discussion April 20, 2014, on WJAR-TV’s "10 News Conference."

An activist, Malin was with Occupy Providence, which occupied the city’s downtown Burnside Park in 2011 as part of the national grassroots movement.

When we asked Malin the basis for his claim, he cited "Transitioning In and Out of Poverty," a 2009 report  by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. Malin directed us to this statement: "Slightly more than half of the U.S. population experiences poverty at some time before the age of 65."

That’s very different from what Malin said. Poverty and hunger often correlate. But experts - including the report’s author - underscore that they are not one and the same.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and many nonprofit or non-governmental organizations

use the term "food insecurity," that is, "people who lack consistent access to adequate food and are unable at times during the year to acquire adequate food because they lack sufficient money or resources." Plainly stated: they have difficulty putting food on the table.

The USDA defines hunger as a physiological condition "that might result from food insecurity." A government panel has recommended a national assessment of hunger.

Caroline Ratcliffe, co-author of the Urban Institute Report that Malin cites, said, "The 50 percent number that he quotes echoes findings in the poverty literature that half of the population will be poor before 65."

"The percentage of Americans who experience poverty and economic hardship is very high.

What we also know, but isn’t exactly the number he cites, is that people who are poor - a lot of them are food insecure," Ratcliffe said.

The numbers "move together, but they are not the same thing," Ratcliffe said.

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We also interviewed Alisha J. Coleman-Jensen, PhD, a sociologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and author of numerous articles and reports on household food insecurity. That includes "Household Food Security in the United States in 2012."

In 2012, "by our estimate, 14.5 percent of households were food insecure," she said. That translates to roughly 49 million people in 17.6 million households. Of those, "5.7 percent of households are at a high risk for food insecurity, meaning they are not getting enough to eat, have disrupted eating patterns or go whole days without food.Those numbers are "not anywhere near 50 percent."

As for Malin’s claim, "I don’t know where that’s from ... I haven’t seen that figure anywhere."

Coleman-Jensen wondered aloud if Malin had misinterpreted the close to 50 million people living in food-insecure households as 50 percent.

"If they’re talking about somebody going hungry at any point in their lives … we do not have data that would allow us to measure the percent of people who will experience food insecurity or low food security ‘at some point in their lives.’’’ She noted that "our data [are] for a single year."

Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, in St. Louis, has conducted research that found that half of all American children will at some point be in a household that uses food stamps. But he said he knew of no studies that addressed lifetime risk of hunger.

"One could argue that if you’re using food stamps you’re at risk of experiencing hunger, but that would be as far as one could go," Rank said.

Kathleen Gorman, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger-Free America, says she does not find Malin’s statement unreasonable, "but it is extremely difficult to prove."  

"First of all, we do not have any good measures of ‘hunger’ -- it is a pretty amorphous idea.  When we measure hunger, we typically use the USDA Household Food Security survey -- and while they are not identical, most people accept that one is an indicator of the other," she said.  

Our ruling

Anti-poverty activist Robert Malin said half of all Americans will go hungry at some point in their lives.

Experts we talked with knew of no research that supported Malin’s claim. And studies show the percentage of Americans facing "food insecurity" annually is closer to 15 percent.

Some studies, however, have found that half of all Americans will be poor at some point in their lives. And researchers say hunger and poverty are linked.

Because the statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, we rate it Mostly False.

(Correction: Robert Malin is an activist with the Rhode Island Mobilization Against Poverty. The initial version of this item incorrectly said he was the head of the organization.)

Our Sources, Urban Institute, "Transitioning In and Out of Poverty," September 10, 2009, accessed May 2, 2014,  "Food Insecurity in U.S. Households Rarely Persists over Many Years," June 3, 2013

Interview, Caroline Ratcliffe, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., co-author, "Transitioning In and Out of Poverty," May 6, 2014

Interviews and e-mails, Robert Malin. May 2, May 5,, May 13, May 14, May 16, 2014

Interview and e-mails, Alisha Coleman-Jensen, social science analyst, U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, May 6, 2014 and May 13, 2014

E-mail: Mark R. Rank, Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis

E-mail, Kathleen Gorman,, director, University of Rhode Island Feinstein Center for a Hunger-Free America, May 13, 2014

"10 News Conference," WJAR-TV/Channel 10, April 20, 2014, accessed May 1, 2014

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