Poverty, hunger, and obesity

The poor in America are more likely to be obese than hungry. That invalidates some old liberal concerns and remedies without validating contemporary libertarian heartlessness.

Belle Waring at Crooked Timber has a good time making fun of a Jane Galt post on the “hunger” issue, and of the resulting thread. You will find Waring’s post helpful if feeling morally superior to libertarians is important to you and if you need help in doing so. Oddly &#8212 or perhaps not &#8212 the thread produced by her post is largely indistinguishable from the thread produced by Jane Galt’s.

Without wanting to referee what seems to me a rather pointless argument about who ought to be blamed for the suffering of the poor (in general, I think “Who is to blame?” is a much less relevant question in making social policy than it is in adjudicating schoolyard disputes) I thought it might be worthwhile to write down a few facts not in serious dispute:

1. Due to the astonishing collapse in the prices of foodstuffs relative to wages and other prices, undernutrition due to poverty is no longer a serious problem in advanced societies, even among the profoundly poor. That’s a huge social advance on the conditions of forty years ago, when hunger remained a major problem in the United States. The refusal of conservatives back then to recognize the problem was appalling; the refusal of some liberals today to recognize that the problems have shifted is perhaps less heartless, but no less obtuse.

2. Even someone who “doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from” isn’t going to literally go hungry. So using “food insecurity” as a proxy for the serious problem of economic insecurity is misleading.

3. Malnutrition remains a significant problem. For complex reasons, many Americans, rich and poor alike, have appallingly unhealthy diets.

4. A major form of malnutrition is overnutrition, leading to obesity, adult-onset diabetes, and other disorders.

5. Malnutrition and overnutrition are more common among the poor.

6. Unhealthy eating habits are promoted by the food industry, including the fast-food restaurant trade and the convenience-food segment of the grocery trade. Unhealthy food is more heavily marketed, and in many cases more easily available, than healthy alternatives. Again, the reasons are complex; the supply chain is harder to manage, and branding is harder to achieve, for apples than it is for potato chips.

7. Much of the marketing designed to promote unhealthy eating is aimed directly at children, making the parental role harder to fulfill.

8. Healthier eating could be promoted by various forms of public action, but the food industry successfully opposes or undermines most such efforts.

9. Healthy eating can be achieved more cheaply than unhealthy eating if you know what you’re doing and have the time to spend.

10. The prosperous generally are more health-conscious than the poor, which among other things means they’re more likely to know and care about what foods are healthy.

11. Healthy food is relatively more available and cheaper to the prosperous than it is to the poor. This is both and effect and a cause of (10).

12. Lots of unhealthy food actually tastes vile, and encouraging people to eat it reduces their enjoyment of food as well as damaging their health. A fresh, ripe mango tastes better than a candy bar. Even among unhealthy foods, the most heavily marketed forms are the worst-tasting: compare a Big Mac to an Inn ‘n’ Out Double-double, or a McDonald’s milkless milkshake to an Inn ‘n’ Out shake.

13. Eating bad food has the side effect of reducing your ability to enjoy good food. While the mechanisms are different, the process is formally similar to the process by which using cocaine reduces your ability to enjoy yourself while not using cocaine.

14. Eating habits are heavily custom-bound, and someone living in a social setting where the customary diet is unhealthy will, on average, consume a less healthy diet than the same person would in a society where the customary diet is healthy. Trying to explain individual dietary choices on a purely individualistic basis is simply a mistake, and gets the wrong answers.

15. Morbidity and mortality due to the socially controllable part of bad nutritional choices dwarfs morbidity and mortality due to unavailable or poor quality health care. Promoting healthier eating is not only a more cost-effective means of improving health than spending more money on health care but also a way to reduce health care spending by reducing the need for health care.

No, right now I don’t have a set of policy proposals reflecting this analysis. But I’m pretty sure that “leaving it to the market” will produce &#8212 indeed, is now producing &#8212 seriously suboptimal results.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com