What’s making you fat now? Food stamps.
The argument goes something like this: Low-income people are more likely to be overweight than wealthier Americans. Low-income people are often on food stamps. Therefore, we should re-vamp the foodstamp program because clearly federal food relief leads to obesity. Also, poor people today (read: uppity Negroes) feel entitled to things like food, unlike the humble poor of yesteryear (read: white people, as evidenced by the examples used by the conservative authors — the characters in “Cinderella Man” and “Angela’s Ashes”), who knew enough to be humiliated by their economic situation. From the Hoover Institute article:
The searing images of the Great Depression, and the movie’s themes of pride, humility, hard work, and family, present an interesting contrast to the plight of the poor today. Although there are no doubt many individuals and families in need, the picture of poverty in America today can best be described as muddled.
To which “independent woman” Charlotte Hays follows:
Well, that was then, and this is now: Today many people regard receiving food stamps not as a humiliation but as an entitlement. We’ve made it that way. At one point, there were food stamp ads in the New York subway. They were designed to show that even ordinary, middle class folks might have to resort to food stamps in a spot of trouble.
Imagine that: a program which sought to lessen the humiliation of being on food stamps. Ha. Everyone knows that the poor should be properly humiliated for their lack of income. It’s the compassionate conservative way.
Back to the Hoover article:
The U.S. Conference of Mayors reminds us every year around Christmas that hunger and homelessness have increased during the previous 12 months, as has been the case, apparently, every year for the past 20 years. Yet the unemployment rate for 2005 (estimated at 5.2 percent) will likely be two full percentage points lower than it was in 1985, and this 20-year period saw one of the most robust economies in American history—including five straight years of less than 5 percent unemployment. Something doesn’t compute. There’s no such confusion when it comes to the Great Depression. At its height, one in every four Americans could not find work.
Now, I wasn’t a math major, but wouldn’t it be possible for the actual number of homeless and hungry people to increase even as the percentage of unemployed people decreases — given that, first, “employed” does not necessarily equal “doing well enough to pay rent or feed your family,” and second, with population increases, the raw number of homeless/hungry people could in fact increase even as percentage-based unemployment decreases?
And a major pet peeve of mine: The argument which comes down to, “The economy is great! Why can’t homeless people just get jobs?” Putting aside the fact that the majority of homeless people are only homeless for a few days and do, in fact, get jobs, those who are chronically homeless often face issues of mental/physical illness and addiction. These are the people who are commonly ID’ed as “homeless,” and who cost the system the greatest amount of money. And contrary to popular belief, they make up a relatively small percentage of the total homeless population (Great New Yorker article on homelessness here). But even if the chronically homeless don’t face health/addiction issues, how exactly are they going to get hired? They don’t usually have a phone number to leave with a potential employer, and if they show the visual cues of “homeless,” a lot of employers have no qualms about discriminating against them. But I suppose it’s a lot easier to simply say, “Get a job, bum” than it is to consider the very practical issues which make actually getting a job incredibly difficult for some segments of the population.
As for “the hungry,” the biggest recipients of government food aid are women with dependent children. We’ve put these women in a nearly impossible situation. In order to qualify for welfare, they usually have to work 40 hours a week, which makes being home for their children impossible — particularly when many of these women commute significant distances to their jobs. Childcare often costs more per month than an entire welfare check. Two-parent middle-income families spend an average of about $10,000 annually on child-rearing. Welfare recipients often receive less than half of that to cover all their expenses for the year. Take Shontice Fields, a 27-year-old mother of two who receives $379 a month in aid. How, exactly, is she supposed to be working 40 hours a week and still make sure that her two kids are taken care of?
Forty percent of low-income single mothers spend at least half of their income on childcare; another 25 percent spent 40-50 percent. From a 2000 report:
Low-income families have the fewest choices. They cannot afford not to work, yet even average-priced child care is unaffordable. Non-poor families, on average, spend 7 percent of their income on child care. Even if a two-parent family with both parents working full time at minimum wage ($21,400 a year before taxes) managed to budget 10 percent of their income for child care ($2,140 a year), they would be left several thousand dollars short of what they needed to afford average-priced child care, much less the higher prices charged by many better quality centers and family child care homes. (page 1)
A survey of child care costs in the 50 states reveals that child care is one of the biggest expenses that families face in raising their children. Child care can easily cost an average of $4,000 to $6,000 per year. In certain areas of the country, families may be spending more than $10,000 a year on child care. Families with infants in care must grapple with particularly high costs. Among the cities surveyed, the average price of center care for infants is generally about $1,100 a year more than the average price of center care for 4-year-olds. These are only the costs for one child’s care ― yet, many families face child care expenses for more than one child.
You have to work 40 hours a week, but childcare costs more than what you make. Conservatives wring their hands about the evils of daycare, but you can’t leave your pre-schooler home alone, and U.S. workplace policies aren’t especially family-friendly — especially in minimum-wage occupations. Conservatives bemoan the lack of “family values,” but have no qualms about separating poor women from their families every day (the right-wing solution: just get married!). It’s commonly agreed that children do better when a parent is present sometimes to help with homework or have dinner together or just play. If you’re working 9 hours a day, and commuting an hour and a half each way, and your small children go to bed early, that doesn’t leave a lot of family bonding time. Which lets conservatives then blame selfish, lazy black women on welfare for raising criminals.
And that’s if you even get welfare in the first place. You’ll get dropped if you’re poor for too long, if you’re convicted of a drug-related offense, if you’re a teen parent living without parental supervision, or if you’re not a citizen.
But yes, just get a job.
Back to Hoover:
The General Social Survey (a far-ranging personal interview survey of U.S. households conducted nearly every year) reveals that, between 1972 and 1994, 76 percent of Americans tended to feel that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Yet, as shown in figure 1 (page 95), a household in poverty in 1994 had the same modern conveniences and material well-being as the general population did in 1971.
Because how poor you are is determined by the kinds of household conveniences you own. Instead of by, say, calculations by the Federal Reserve, which show that the rich in fact are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
A second crossroads concerns the effectiveness of food stamps in meeting the nutritional needs of the poor. The dilemma is that advocates of federal food programs do not want to see food stamps reduced in any way; they are thus forced into the ridiculous position of insisting that hunger is on the rise, when, according to former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, “The simple fact is that more people die in the United States from too much food than of too little.”
Someone give this man an award for his phenomenal use of misleading evidence to “prove” a point which would otherwise be impossible to make. The fact that more people die from obesity-related issues (which is what I assume he means by “too much food”) than from starvation in no way proves that hunger is not on the rise; it only proves that fewer people are starving to death, which just maybe is a product of the much-maligned welfare state.
Upward of 70 percent of low-income adults are overweight (many are in fact obese), and adolescents from low-income families are twice as likely to be overweight as other adolescents. Additionally, some Agriculture Department studies have shown that food stamps may actually contribute to overeating, although the evidence is mixed.
Poor people are fatter than middle and upper-income people. Poor people are more likely to be on foodstamps. Therefore, foodstamps make you eat too much. Someone get this man to a Logical Reasoning 101 course!
Have we perhaps considered that weight gain isn’t necessarily caused by constant binging, but by living a fairly sedentary lifestyle and eating foods that are high in fat and sugar? Have we considered that trying to support a family on minimum wage and welfare doesn’t give you a whole lot of time for that pilates class you’ve been dying to take? Have we considered the fact that the federal government hugely subsidizes corn production (agricultural welfare, if you will), which means that high-fructose corn syrup is in everything — to the point where we eat about 31 teaspoons of it a day, three times the recommended amount, and accounting for a full 15 percent of our daily caloric intake? There’s a pretty solid connection between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity rates. And because corn is so heavily subsidized, high-fructose corn syrup is dirt cheap — meaning that a lot of affordable foods (you know, the stuff that low-income people rely on) are brimming with it.
So perhaps poorer people are fatter because they only have access to the most fattening foods, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
There are also all the structural issues that low-income people face when it comes to accessing things like fresh fruit and vegetables, as Zuzu illustrates here. I’m not going to repeat everything she wrote; read her post, it’s fantastic. It details the various institutional barriers that poor people face in accessing healthy foods. And food stamps are indeed a barrier — but not because they make you fat. Foodstamps are a barrier because they’re only accepted in certain places, and they aren’t exactly generous. When you’ve got a family to feed and one avocado costs as much as four packets of Ramen, you get the salty, nutritionally valueless Ramen and at least don’t go to bed hungry. I’m not a poor single mom, but I am a student, albeit a fairly health-conscious one — and even I rely on mac & cheese half the time, because it’s a whole lot cheaper than ordering sushi or even buying the ingredients for a healthy chicken stir-fry. If you’ve been working on your feet all day and are too tired to cook, it’s easier to buy a few meals at McDonalds, and cheaper (and more filling, and results in less kid-complaining) than buying everyone a nice big salad of their choosing.
The health problems associated with being overweight or obese are well documented. Thus, every effort should be made to support nutrition education and determine the most effective ways to positively influence the diets of program participants. The FSP has stepped up nutrition education efforts since the early 1990s. More than $192 million was spent on such programs in 2003, but their effectiveness is unclear. One idea under consideration is “green stamps”—a proposal that would set aside a portion of each individual’s benefit to be used only for purchasing fruits and vegetables. Other researchers are studying the link between food insecurity (where not all members of a household have access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle) and obesity among low-income persons. In the end, the prevalence of being overweight and on food stamps should bring greater scrutiny to the efficacy of federal food relief.
How about greater federal scrutiny of things like school lunch programs, which are notoriously unhealthy and which may serve as the primary meal(s) for low-income kids — and which Republican hero Ronald Regan notoriously tried to short-change by asserting that ketchup should count as a vegetable? Or the cutting of physical education programs? Or federal subsidies for corn production? Or public schools being so under-funded that they make deals with soft drink companies at the expense of their students’ health?
But that’s so hard. Better to just humiliate the poor. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic — humiliating the poor is this writer’s solution, and “humiliation” is his word (along with “stigma”):
Although reducing individual humiliation is certainly a well-meaning endeavor, stigma is a powerful and necessary tool for a civil society. How else can we influence behavior without monetary costs or legal appeals?
In two sentences, he just summed up the conservative mentality on everything from poverty to sex to religion to war: The best way to deal with people who are in any way not like you is to humiliate, shame and stigmatize them until they conform their behavior and beliefs to your liking. Fine philosophy, that.
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