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Oct 29 2010

Counting calories for the poor

Because people have such negative prejudices about the poor and unemployed as being lazy good-for-nothings who are trying to live off the fruits of other people’s hard work, they pay unusually close attention to prevent cheating and fraud by the poor. This explains why some people get more worked up by stories of petty fraud by poor people than by huge corporations and rich people carrying out massive swindles that have a far greater negative impact on almost all of us. People will rail about welfare cheats or workers in the cash economy not reporting all their incomes and thus paying less tax, while ignoring the tax sheltering schemes of the rich.

This is because well-to-do people are making a moral judgment, not an economic one. They think that poor people are somehow inferior in character and their misdeeds are thus seen as springing from character weaknesses, not economic calculation. It is the same mentality that results in society punishing the crimes of poor people proportionately more harshly than those of rich people.

There is also a whole industry devoted to the enterprise of determining exactly how much money people need to live on to meet their most basic needs. This is not an unreasonable exercise for governments to carry out in order to determine the size of the welfare benefits it should provide to make sure that people can survive ill health or the loss of jobs or other personal misfortunes that prevent them from earning a living. But what irks me is that the same government that is so careful with tax money when it comes to allocating resources to the poor spends like a drunken sailor when it comes to the needs of Wall Street or the military or tax cuts for the rich. If they paid as much attention to prevent waste and tax fraud and other forms of cheating in the defense budgets and in corporate sector, they would likely save a lot more money.

What is objectionable is the way people pass moral judgments and lecture poor people on what they should do with their welfare benefits. Some people seem to feel that just because our tax dollars are going to pay for poor people’s food stamps, we have earned the right to criticize other their food choices in ways that we would not dream of doing for anyone else. For example, welfare recipients are often at the receiving end of openly disapproving looks, comments, and other negative judgments about their purchases if they happen to use food stamps to buy foods (like cakes and doughnuts or soda) that are eligible but are perceived as luxuries and not wholesome. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is even proposing a ban on the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks.

One of the good changes that happened recently is that food stamps are no longer in coupon form but are now debit cards that can be swiped in cash registers. While this makes for more efficiency in the system, what I like most about it is that it makes it hard for anyone other than the cashier to know if people are purchasing items using food stamps, and thus restores a small measure of dignity to people who might be embarrassed to reveal that they are down on their luck.

Being poor leads to behavior that can seem irrational and inexplicable to the casual observer who is not poor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, his masterful examination of the lives of poor mining families in the north of England written after living with those families, George Orwell described how despite having incomes or unemployment benefits so low that they could barely subsist, the families would still ‘waste’ their money on frivolities like beer and cigarettes and sweets, leaving them with less money for more wholesome fresh fruits and vegetables. These choices led to them being malnourished.

But such poor choices are not caused exclusively by stupidity or failures of character. In chapter 5, Orwell explains how market pricing systems drive people towards making bad nutritional decisions.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even ‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry.

Orwell wrote this in 1937 but it rings true even now. The cheapest source of calories and the most economical way to satiate your hunger and get your daily caloric needs is to eat a meal of hamburger and fries and wash it down with a soda. Whole wheat bread, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fruit juices may be much better for you but they are more expensive to live on.

But it is not merely economics that drives poor people into making bad food choices. Orwell points out that there are important psychological factors at work too, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Ginger

    When I was a kid, we had little money and were on food stamps once. We didn’t get chips, or pop, or even McDonald’s because they were all far too expensive than making food at home. People always say that the poor buy fast food because it is cheap. Not cheaper than rice and beans and some canned green beans. Of course there are issues of the ability of the very poor to get to a grocery store and transport the groceries home by bus. Not to mention people don’t even know how to cook anymore. However, I think the fast food is cheap argument is a red herring.

    I also take issue with people using food stamps to buy pop. I used to work at Marc’s, so the people there obviously had access to a grocery store. But many people on food stamps bought nothing but *expensive* crap food. Again, in my house NO POP. We couldn’t afford it. And I wasn’t traumatized by it.

    One of the purposes of government assistance (which I am all for) is to help children. How is feeding kids pepsi and ho-hos (which will lead to higher medical bills one day) helping children?

    I don’t know the character of these people or their motivations, but as a taxpayer I would feel justified in saying, “No pop for you!”

  2. 2
    henry

    @Ginger

    It isn’t so much of a meal vs meal comparison but rather a cost per calorie comparison.

    For example, for $5 you can get about 1000 calories in a fast food meal.

    If you spent $5 on lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots to make a nice healthy salad you would have about 300 calories.

    You can spend $5 to get a medium pepperoni pizza at Little Caesar’s. That’s 8 slices – maybe 1500 calories total.

    Raw food should be the cheapest food available because there is no processing to add to the cost. But due to farm subsidies this often isn’t true. Processed corn (corn syrup) is cheaper than most fresh fruit. This is why corn syrup is such a common sweetener.

    Or to think of it another way, a box of mac and cheese costs less than a head of lettuce. Ramen noodles cost pennies per serving.

  3. 3
    Peter

    @ Henry and Ginger

    great point Henry regarding the agricultural subsidies- such things actually increase the prices of food. But then again I can hear Ginger, tool. In the 1970′s i was a kid ( born 1967) my family though not on food stamps, was on a Navy petty officers salary , and finally an NCO’s salary. Well before the NCO stage we ate simple foods, sweets wer not in abundance, McDonalds was a rarity ,and for the most part my peers were in the same situation. In fact i can remember it was big big trouble to get a cavity or cavities ( i mean you got in real trouble.) And this is the genisis of the welfare stories.
    People who are working and making sacrifices can get a bit testy at people living on the dole who are seemingly extravegant. But then again this was all PRE RONALD REAGAN AND THE RIGHT WING UPHEAVAL cause before then well things were different anyway

  4. 4
    nhsredundancy

    The HNS Redundancy Crisis affects millions of people….why is nobody taking action?

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