While most Americans were planning for the annual ritual of overconsumption known as Thanksgiving, the good folks at the Heritage Foundation, America’s leading architects of conservative thought for at least three decades, were doing their part to add to the holiday cheer. According to a November 13 Heritage article, well-off revelers could stuff their faces unhampered by guilt about the less fortunate, because there are no longer any hungry people in the United States.
You have to hand it to Heritage for always being first out of the gate to exploit the latest event or finding to advance its aims—this is the same think tank that issued a comprehensive strategy, two weeks after Katrina hit shore, for using the hurricane as an excuse to slash federal social programs. This time, its thinkers found inspiration in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report on Household Food Security in the United States, which is as close as the federal government comes to providing statistics on hunger among the nation’s poor. The latest report states that 11 percent of Americans were “food insecure” for some part of 2006, and 4 percent—11.1 million people—experienced “very low food security.”
These Orwellian euphemisms are a triumph for the conservative agenda; the USDA altered its terminology last year on the recommendations of an “expert panel” convened back in 2003. “Very low food security,” for example, used to be “food insecurity with hunger.” The experts asked the department to eliminate “hunger,” which, they argued, “should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” To some, that might better describe starvation, but the panel’s reasoning wouldn’t be a stretch for the Bush administration, which claims “torture” must entail pain “equivalent in intensity” to the pain of “serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
But the Heritage folks are looking beyond semantic tweaks: Far from having too little to eat, they argue, poor people are eating too much. By the time the USDA report went public, Heritage had readied its own salvo, titled “Hunger Hysteria: Examining Food Security and Obesity in America.” In recent years, the U.S. media and public have become increasingly obsessed with the “obesity epidemic.” And what better way to attack the idea of deprivation among the poor than to note that they are getting fatter? Rightly or not, people still associate obesity with the sins of gluttony and sloth, which jibes nicely with the concept that welfare recipients are lazy people who would rather feed at the public trough than get an honest job.
“Hunger Hysteria” is the work of Robert Rector, Heritage’s senior domestic-policy man and a main proponent of welfare “reform.” He argues that while the USDA’s numbers might sound “ominous” on the surface, “the government’s own data show that the overwhelming majority of food insecure adults are, like most adult Americans, overweight or obese.” While “they may have brief episodes of reduced food intake, most adults in food insecure households actually consume too much, not too little food.”
His next step is to attack proposals that would give the poor more cash for food “despite the fact that most…already eat too much.” More food money, he suggests, will only make them fatter. Instead, Rector says, they ought to be encouraged to “avoid chronic overconsumption of calories” and to simply “spread their food intake more evenly over the course of each month to avoid episodic shortfalls.”
Rector goes on to attack common “misconceptions,” such as the argument that “poor people become obese because they are forced, due to lack of financial resources, to eat too many junk foods that are high in fat and added sugar.” Junk foods, he counters, aren’t particularly cheap—for example, Coke and Pepsi cost more than milk. “Snack foods such as potato chips and donuts [sic] cost two to five times more per calorie than healthier staples such as beans, rice and pasta.” In other words, if the poor want to eat junk food and get fat, fine, but let’s not finance such behavior. The solution, Rector argues, resorting to the perennial trope, isn’t a more-equitable society or expanded social programs, but greater “personal responsibility” on the part of poor people.
There’s another side of the story, of course, that addresses realities Heritage and its followers choose to ignore. Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology and director of the University of Washington’s Center for Obesity Research, believes diet is determined by economic and social factors far more than by personal choice. “Healthier diets are more expensive,” he says flatly. It’s easy to point to specific exceptions like doughnuts vs. beans or Coke vs. milk (well, not always; my local Safeway charges 40 cents more for a half-gallon of milk than for a two-liter bottle of Coke). But research generally has shown that “energy-dense foods,” which often are high in refined grains and added sugar and fat, “provide dietary energy at a far lower cost than do lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit,” as Drewnowski wrote in a 2004 article for Nutrition Today. Processed foods also dominate store shelves in poor neighborhoods, are quick to prepare, and simply taste better to some people than some nutritious foods available on the cheap—think cabbage, condensed milk, and canned fish.
Drewnowski calls Rector’s arguments “rubbish, written from a position of class privilege—let them eat broccoli, indeed.” He cites the suggestion that the poor should purchase cheap, nutritious foods rather than processed stuff. “When you suggest that people buy rice, pasta, and beans,” he says, “you presuppose that they have resources for capital investment for future meals”—since these healthy staples come in large bags—”a kitchen, pots, pans, utensils, gas, electricity, a refrigerator, a home with rent paid, the time to cook. Those healthy rice and beans can take hours; another class bias is that poor people’s time is worthless. So this is all about resources that middle-class people take so much for granted that they do not give them another thought. Not everybody has them.”
On the other hand, he says, “buying a doughnut for dinner does not involve any of those middle-class resources. You pay 55 cents for this meal only and there you are. Yes, rice would be cheaper if only people had the time and were not working two jobs on minimum wage.”
The Food Research and Action Center, a D.C. public interest advocacy group, seconds Drewnowski’s findings in a position paper: “One factor that may contribute to the coexistence of obesity and food insecurity is the need for low-income families to stretch their food money as far as possible. Without adequate resources for food, families must make decisions to maximize the number of calories they can buy so that their members do not suffer from frequent hunger.”
The situation is likely to worsen, since rising food costs have outpaced inflation. According to the Department of Labor, prices rose more in the first half of 2007 than in all of 2006. If this continues, 2007 will mark the largest annual increase in food costs (7.5 percent) since 1980. Nutritious foods are even harder to afford; a study by Adam Drewnowski and Pablo Monsivais just published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows that prices for the healthiest foods have ballooned nearly 20 percent in the past two years, while those for fatty and sugary fare have actually decreased a bit.
Against this backdrop, the safety net of food stamps and other social-welfare programs continues to shrink. Since the Reagan years, Washington has been dominated by New Victorian attitudes championed by neoconservative doyenne Gertrude Himmelfarb—wife of Irving Kristol and mother of William—who in her writings seems to yearn for the days of nineteenth-century Britain, when “every measure of poor relief…had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the poor.” Reaganites worked hard to trade the entitlement programs of the despised New Deal and War on Poverty for the tough love of faith-based charity, where a prayer could get you a bowl of soup.
Democrats bought into a version that was only nominally kinder and gentler. In the 1990s they signed on to President Bill Clinton’s famous welfare-reform bill—the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996”—suggesting that the causes and the solution to poverty lay with the poor themselves. At times these pious and punitive ideologies have taken a more inventive, supposedly scientific turn, hiding behind statistics and the seemingly disinterested policymaking of such things as risk-benefit analysis. But they have seldom been seriously challenged by either party.
Indeed, President Bush appears determined to cut funding to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. The program, which provides healthy foods, nutrition counseling, and healthcare referrals to some 8.5 million low-income pregnant and post-partum women and children under five, heretofore has had bipartisan backing in both Republican and Democratic governments and has been considered quite effective. But Bush has threatened to veto the 2007 farm bill unless cuts are made to discretionary spending, including WIC. If Bush prevails, local WIC centers will have little choice but to turn women away, putting some on a waiting list and cutting others from the rolls—more than 500,000 mothers and young children would be dropped from the program.
The fate of food stamps is also tied to the farm bill. “Cuts Congress enacted in 1996 are shrinking the value of food stamps more with each passing year, making it increasingly difficult for millions of poor families to afford a healthy diet,” says Robert Greenstein, director of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Right now, food stamps average only about $1 per person per meal, well short of what these families need.”
The House has passed a version of the bill with measures to help food stamps keep pace with inflation, but the legislation—problematic in many other ways—is stalled on the Senate floor. “The single biggest thing we can do to improve the diets of food-stamp families,” Greenstein says, “is to raise their food purchasing power so they can afford more nutritious foods instead of having to rely on cheap high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.”
This is the context in which Heritage is attacking better funding for food stamps and other nutrition programs for the poorest Americans. Instead of having well-off taxpayers feel for poor people in New York or Los Angeles trying to survive on a buck a meal, the organization has them think about all those fat people they saw last time they drove through a low-income neighborhood with the windows rolled up. But even the comfortable may not remain forever distant from the realities of hunger in America. Of the food supplies and resources middle-class people take for granted, Adam Drewnowski remarks, “Given the current economic situation, many people may not have them for much longer.”