Miller Research: Hungry for Answers

Nolan Miller Quote

[Reprinted from Perspectives Fall 2011]

Back in the 1990s, the World Food Summit set a goal of cutting in the half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. Since then, the number of hungry people has soared from 824 million in the 1990-1992 period to more than one billion today, according to World Bank data. With the Summit’s deadline just three years away, the problem seems to be getting worse.

There are many reasons why the number of hungry would be on the upswing. But a new study raises an intriguing possibility-perhaps the methodology for counting them doesn’t always accurately measure who’s hungry and who’s not. The study was conducted by Nolan Miller, professor of finance and a faculty associate in the College’s Center for Business and Public Policy, and Robert Jensen, associate professor of public policy at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs.

Nolan Miller

The World Bank deems someone hungry if they get less than 2,100 calories a day. By that definition, one in seven people on the planet is hungry. But Miller and Jensen propose a second test-do people act like they are hungry? They tested their theory in China, and when they got done they found that acute hunger in China was becoming less, not more, of a problem. That’s about what you would expect, given China’s meteoric economic growth. But by contrast, other measures say China’s hunger problem is getting worse.

A Measured Response

By any system, hunger is hard to measure. An elderly woman may not be getting the allotted 2,100 calories a day- but then again, she probably doesn’t need that many. On the other hand, “A laborer may be eating a lot of calories, but not meeting his needs,” says Miller.

One common-sense way to test whether someone is getting enough food is to look at what they eat. If they have enough money to buy meat, they’re probably not hungry. If they were hungry,
according to Miller and Jensen’s theory, they would take the money they’re spending on meat and buy more staples such as rice. “When you get hungry, you start to veer toward the staples because they provide you with more calories at alower cost,” says Miller.

Their findings are contained in a working paper, which is awaiting peer review required for publication. But the working paper has already received substantial attention in The Economist and
elsewhere. Miller and Jensen also outlined their findings in an op-ed piece for TheNew York Times.

The researchers want to provide another hunger measurement tool so that policymakers can better target the limited funds available to ameliorate hunger. “We’re just trying to improve the way
hunger is measured and understood,” says Miller. “We call people hungry if theyact like they’re hungry.”

Grains of Truth

The starting point for their research was Asia. “If you look at China and India, where incomes are going up, people should be better off,” Miller says. Yet according to the standard measurement, hunger is increasing at the same time income is increasing. But when Miller and Jensen used their system, they found that people were indeed better off. “They haven’t necessarily
increased their calories,” says Miller. But they were able to diversify their diet, and eat less rice. That meant they were better nourished.

To test their theory, they spent months in China recording what individuals in 1,300 very poor households ate. “We asked them to tell us everything they had eaten for a 24-hour period, and we collected data three times from each family.” All the families were picked from Chinese welfare lists. While there were some variations in income, all were living below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line. The researchers combined their findings with a broader set of data from the University of North Carolina to draw conclusions for the country as a whole.

They found that when people were extremely strapped for cash, they would, out of economic necessity, get 80 percent or more of their calories from rice. That was the cheapest way to get the calories they needed and meet their other nutritional requirements “whether you’re talking about the construction worker or the elderly lady,” Miller says. But when their income went above 250 yuan per person per month (about $1 a day), they would diversify their diet and get fewer than 80 percent of their calories from rice.

The researchers also gave rice-subsidy coupons to some of the families. They did this to see what would happen if they artificially boosted family incomes by freeing up rice money to spend on other things. “When we did that, we found they spent more money on seafood. But they didn’t buy more food-they diversified their calories.” They also spent more on communications, possibly buying prepaid cell phones to call their friends andfamilies.

Food for Thought

From the coupon experiment, the researchers concluded that either people didn’t need additional calories, or they needed additional calories and didn’t know it. “If you think giving people more
money will solve hunger, their behavior indicates otherwise,” says Miller. “It may be that you need to complement cash aid with nutrition education.”

While their work raises questions about the existing yardstick for measuring hunger, the researchers are not suggesting that it should be scrapped. “We’re not proposing our measure as an alternative to the existing system,” says Miller. “But it could be used alongside the standard measure. So far, we’ve started to get more attention for our work, but I don’t know if it’s made it to the policymakers’ radarscreens yet.”