Thankful for families, or not

Hunger is unequally distributed around the world, as we know. And in the places where hunger is a serious problem, it also is unequally distributed within families.

Around the world, populations range from almost no systemic undernourishment to more than 35% undernourished (click for the full PDF map):

How do families help? Naturally, parents feed their children when they’re young, and when necessary children feed their parents when they’re old. When parents or children are too poor to feed each other, governments, others in the community, or aid agencies may help. And when there is no government or other aid, the people without families are especially vulnerable.

Within families, though, nutrition flows unevenly.

The tendency of parents to give girl children less food has been observed in studies from India, Bangladesh and others, but it is not universal – varying between regions and across family types and children’s ages, for example. Local variability offers insights into how this works: Indian communities in which adult women have relatively higher status show less discrimination against girls.

These things are never quite as simple as they seem, though. For example, in some parts of South Asia fertility has fallen but there is still strong son preference. One implication is sex selective abortion — because the stakes are higher when they’re only having a couple children, parents may get desperate for one of them to be a son. The other thing that happens is people are more likely to stop bearing children after they have a son – not after they have a daughter. Math-wise, that means daughters have more siblings, on average. And that brings us back to boys getting more food — which is especially the case in larger families.


I hate child hunger, a subject painful enough that I exercise my tenure-given right to choose a different research topic. Disparities in educational opportunity or gender socialization are one thing, but gross differences in mid-upper arm circumference (representing malnutrition) are something else. But charitable giving is easier than research.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to give some charity this year, consider adding the right international targets into your giving mix. Our family’s non-systematic review of charitable options has produced two leading targets: Love Without Boundaries which provides humanitarian aid, including medical care, to Chinese orphans and poor children; and Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical aid to those most in need in many countries. In addition to their reputations for sound financial management and good ethics (check Charity Navigator or another evaluator), these organizations help provide for people when their families can’t or won’t.

2 thoughts on “Thankful for families, or not

  1. Should you really be surprised that girls get fed a bit less? Calorie needs differ by gender – the USDA seems to suggest that for similar measures of physical activity males need approximately 10% more food. i.e. Conclusions based on a mere difference in calorie intake seem unwarranted and somewhat in opposition to the available data.

    If memory serves correct one way in which the book Poor Economics showed calorie intake variation changed from region to region was based on whether the predominant industry in the area was more amenable to girls or boys. Differences in food intake where only apparently during food shortages. In such a case, this sounds in practice like a variant of triage. i.e. those whose labor could best be used to increase the available supply of calories get fed more.


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