The Transformation of Hunger: The Demand for Calories Past and Present

Trevon D Logan, Ohio State University

According to conventional income measures, nineteenth century American and British industrial workers were two to four times as wealthy as poor people in developing countries today. Surprisingly, however, today’s poor are less hungry than yesterday’s wealthy industrial workers. I estimate the demand for calories of American and British industrial workers using the 1888 Cost of Living Survey and find that the estimated caloric elasticities for both American and British households are greater than caloric elasticity estimates for households in present day developing countries. The results are robust to measurement error, unreported food consumption, and indirect estimation bias. This finding implies substantial nutritional improvements among the poor in the twentieth century. Using the Engel curve implied by the historical caloric elasticities, I derive new income estimates for developing countries which yield income estimates that are six to ten times greater than those derived using purchasing power parity or GDP deflators.

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Presented in Session 65: Population and the Nutritional Transition