October 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.