Monday, February 14, 2011

Food choice and income...

I was struck by Chris Clayton's casual semi-endorsement of food intervention by the government in a glancing reference in a recent column.
I was going to write this blog about people being able to use food-stamp debit cards in California at fast-food places. Yeah, really. But someone pointed out that in L.A. they have been doing that since 2005. It's still a big issue in other parts of California and, yes, I'm floored that we can let people use food stamps at a Jack-in-the-Box on one hand, and then preach about obesity on the other. [More]
This a curious, but widely held contradiction in farm country, I think. On one hand we rise up against foodies who want to tell us what to eat - stinkin' vegans, etc. At the same time, we are mightily offended at our tax dollars being used for the "obesity fodder" for the poor.

My question: Is fast food bad for poor people, but good for the rest of us or what?

I think the underlying issue, however, is twofold. First, we hold many unfounded ideas about who the poor are and how they live, and second we resent the necessity of utilizing those same folks to get the farm bill approved.

But much of what we think about food stamp (SNAP) recipients is inaccurate. It is a startlingly Red State phenomenon (check out this very helpful map) with Oregon, Michigan, Washington, and Maine thrown in. Which makes me wonder whether Republicans have really thought this latest rant against the poor through.

Other misunderstood characteristics:
There have been several notable changes in the characteristics of SNAP households between 1989 and 2009. Some of the most striking changes are noted here.
The primary source of income among SNAP participants shifted from welfare to work. In 1989, 42 percent of all SNAP households received cash welfare benefits and only 20 percent had earnings. In 2009, less than 10 percent received cash welfare, while 29 percent had earnings.
The percentage of households with no cash income of any kind more than doubled. In 1989, 7 percent of SNAP households had zero gross income. This increased to nearly 18 percent in 2009. Similarly, the percentage of SNAP households with zero net income, who received the maximum benefit, rose from 18 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2009.
The average SNAP household’s income remained close to 60 percent of the poverty level. When SNAP participation levels decline, average    household    income    rises    slightly. Conversely, income falls when participation levels increase. However, the variation is small, ranging from an average income that is 56 percent of poverty, when caseloads were rising rapidly in
1993, to 63 percent of the poverty level in 2000, when caseloads were low.
Households have gotten smaller. In 1990, the average SNAP household contained 2.6 persons. In 2009, the average had fallen to 2.2 persons. During this period, households with one person rose from 32 percent of all households to over 46 percent.
The percentage of participants who are children remained fairly steady. In 1990, half of participants were under age 18, about the same percentage as in 2009. However, the share of households with children fell from 60 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2009. This is primarily due to an increase in single-person households. [More]
Much of the animus toward the program may be quietly racial, as the image of an obese African-American single mother pops into farmer minds easily (based on my asking them when they begin their what's-wrong-with-America speech - hardly scientific but telling nonetheless).

But the racial profile is even less clear-cut.
Based on a study of data gathered in Fiscal Year 2006:
  • 49 percent of all participants are children (18 or younger), and 61 percent of them live in single-parent households.
  • 52 percent of SNAP households include children.
  • 9 percent of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).
  • 76 percent of all benefits go to households with children, 16 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 9 percent go to households with elderly persons.
  • 33 percent of households with children were headed by a single parent, the overwhelming majority of which were headed by women.
  • The average household size is 2.3 persons.
  • The average gross monthly income per SNAP household is $673.
  • 43 percent of participants are white; 33 percent are African-American, non-Hispanic; 19 percent are Hispanic; 2 percent are Asian, 2 percent are Native American, and less than 1 percent are of unknown race or ethnicity. [More]

More concerning to me, especially as this recession still struggles to provide many jobs, is the growing cultural divide between the have-jobs and the have-nots. With empathy falling from favor, and a
just-world vindication of the poor deserving somehow their status, the idea a permanent underclass with virtually no upward mobility chances becomes more possible.

Strangely enough it is this disconnect that leads many to embrace the conviction that the poor are poor because they make really dumb economic choices. I'll ignore the astonishingly stupid economic decisions we now recognize the rich and middle class made in the last few years, and focus instead on new research that suggests to me I would probably be making similar decisions in similar circumstances.

There are also serious cause-and-effect arguments to be made on this assumption.
There is so much nonsense here it’s hard to figure out where to start. First of all, some of the factual claims aren’t even supported. For example, on obesity, they cite a study finding that obesity declines with educational level. Then they assert: “Given the strong correlation between education and income, there is little doubt that the poor have more trouble maintaining a healthy body weight.” Yes, given the above, it is likely that there is a negative correlation between obesity and income; but it is also likely that that negative correlation is explained by education, not by poverty. Couldn’t they have made the effort to find a study with the facts they need instead of just assuming?*
Second, and more importantly, if we assume for the purposes of argument that more poor people are obese, it’s an enormous leap to say that this is because they make worse judgments. There are many other possible explanations. Here are a few, each of which I find more compelling than the behavioral one:
  • It’s more expensive to eat healthy food than unhealthy food.
  • Many poor people work long hours or have limited child care options, which makes it harder to buy and cook healthy food from the grocery store.
  • Poor people have worse health care than rich people.

 One other than springs to mind for me is access to grocery stores vs. fast food. 
People who live in poorer neighborhoods in the U.S. are less likely to have easy access to supermarkets carrying a wide variety of fresh produce and other healthy food, an analysis of 54 studies confirms.
But they probably have plenty of unhealthy fast food joints to choose from, Dr. Nicole I. Larson of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and her colleagues found.
"The research I reviewed suggests there is a need for new policies and other local actions to address the problem of poor access to healthy foods in many lower income, rural, and minority communities," Larson told Reuters Health.
Evidence is mounting, Larson and her team note, that segregation of neighborhoods by "income, race, and ethnicity" plays a major role in US health disparities, and accessibility to healthy -- and unhealthy -- food may be a factor. [More]
And from a straightforward dollars per calorie calculation, fast food is a far better buy than ingredients. Which of course, is another problem, but on one level obese poor people are making Adam-Smith-approved choices.

This is especially true for the unemployed. Until you have experienced this personally or a  close family member, it is easier to promote the idea SNAP and similar programs enable slackers. Doubtless there are many who game the system, but there are more, I believe, folks like this:
Whatever the demon or deity, I was, of course, grateful. But 15 months of unemployment does something to you, changes you. The obvious horrible thing about poverty, of course, is that you can’t buy things, but poverty also dices and shreds whatever self-esteem you might have left after losing your job and your apartment. I remember the weekend I had $3.48 in the bank and was hoping my food stamps would electronically replenish on Monday so I could eat, and recall wondering whether there was a state of the soul beyond humility. [More]
The acid test is when you know some folks personally who use SNAP, and for whom it makes a big difference. Many of these people may be new users in the last few years and are deeply embarrassed by their situation, but I for one am glad we have this type of safety net particularly because of my profession. Farmers should have a natural interest in hunger, I would think.

No government program works perfectly, and before I would throw stones at SNAP participants for their choices, I would ponder how I would rationally explain economically some of my government handouts and what I do with that money.

If we are outraged about food advocates wanting to tax soda, for example, why are we upset about welfare recipients buying soda? Let's pick one side and stay on it.

No comments: