The poor, you shall have always with you

The mental model most Americans use for dealing with poverty is Dickens-with-a-hotplate. Thus the raging anger triggered by the statement--which has rich supporting evidence from places like the Census Bureau and the USDA--that however many and varied the needs of the poor may be, food is not among them. If you mentally equate poverty with hunger, then denying the hunger means denying the poverty.

But the poor don't need to be hungry to be poor. There is little to no systematic evidence that poverty-linked undernutrition--malnutrition caused by too little food intake--is an actual problem in America. "Food insecurity" numbers batted around by the FDA do not mean that people actually went hungry; they mean that people worried about going hungry, or changed their diet--usually by altering the composition of the diet, not by forgoing food--to avoid going hungry. But of actual sustained hunger, there is no evidence.

There is, on the other hand, a lot of evidence of obesity among the poor; their obesity rate is estimated at 36%, and the obesity rate among poor children seems to be about twice the rate among non-poor children. The poor people are eating more calories than they need. Yet we propose to stimulate the economy by giving the poor money that can only be spent on more food.

What about the argument that the poor are forced into eating high-calorie diets by the expense of produce and whole grains? This is silly on many counts:

1. It assumes what it sets out to prove: holds the caloric budget of the poor constant, and then proves that you have to spend more to get the same number of calories from whole grains and fruit than you currently do from potato chips. Fully one third of the poor are consuming too many calories; there is nothing in this to indicate that they could not afford a healthier diet if they cut back on the number of calories they consumed, and used the money saved therefrom to upgrade the quality of their food. If you want to know whether the poor can eat a healthy diet, you hold their budget constant, and see whether they could afford to eat fewer, higher quality calories. The public health researchers I've spoken to seem to universally agree that they could.

2. The poor are getting fatter, fast. High-quality foods are not getting more expensive, the incomes of the poor are not going down, and grocery stores, even in urban areas, are only improving.

3. This is generally "proven" by the observation that the poor are fat; therefore, they must be eating too many empty calories. But the causal link is more likely to run the other way; there is good evidence that obesity depresses your earning potential. This is particularly true because obese people are disproportionately likely to end up on disability: excess weight is hard on he knees and back.

4. This partakes of a mental model of obesity that casts it as a matter of simply making good choices from the available basket. Choose the salad, you stay thin; choose the steak, you get fat. That model is popularized by diet books and nutritionists, who are in the business of telling you what choices to make. The logical conclusion is that the reason the poor are obese is that they are either making bad choices, or their basket of choices is too restricted to allow them to choose low-calorie foods.

This model is being upended by research on appetite and metabolism. People's bodies have a set point that they very much want to maintain; if you push their bodies below the set point, their appetite will increase until it is nearly unbearable. A few superhuman people can withstand it, but hunger is an evolutionary response of the same order as pain: unless you're superhuman, you cannot overcome it with willpower.

There is no evidence whatsoever that giving poor people food stamps will cause them to reduce their calorie consumption. There is no evidence that the poor need more food.

Saying that the poor don't need more food is not the same thing as saying that the poor aren't poor, or that they live joyous lives of material satiety. Being poor is awful for a score of reasons that I don't think I have to go into--and if you doubt it, I invite you to rent an apartment in Anacostia or East New York for a month, and attempt to live on the average welfare grant.

But to the extent that you think we have an obligation to help the poor with their problems, and that those problems can be fixed by giving them money to buy things, then we should give them money to buy things. Attaching strings to the money both blunts the fiscal stimulus, and degrades the dignity of adult citizens who are presumptively capable of deciding whether they would like to spend their money on a bag of apples or a pair of shoes.

Meanwhile, to those who had a procedural complaint with my post--saying that we should use food stamps because we already have the EBT cards--we already have several rich networks for distributing cash to the poor. For the working poor, we have the EITC, which is conveniently about to be distributed right now; we could just tack on $500 to each check. And for the non-working poor who qualify for food stamps, we have the disability insurance and welfare systems, which are giving them money right now. Food stamps are simply an inferior alternative to these options on all dimensions--unless you happen to be a food processor or a farmer.