Let Them Eat Cheeseburgers

Doug Besharov’s tastefully illustrated column in the Dec. 8 Outlook section of the Washington Post suggested that our government is giving poor people too much food. They’re not hungry, and yet we’re stuffing their faces and making them fat, he says.

In reality, many Americans are hungry (3 percent of households and rising, according to the conservative calculations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and declining wages and insufficient government assistance can explain much of this hunger and probably some of the fat.

As Besharov admits, 65 percent of all Americans are overweight, many of them not poor. Among the poor, he claims that 70 or 75 percent are overweight. Is this relatively minor variation really in need of explanation? We can probably find a 5 percent variation across racial or gender lines too, and Besharov isn’t blaming the government for imposing poor health on any racial or gender group.

Still, a number of theories, ignored by Besharov, have been developed and to some extent researched, to explain why the poor are more often obese. Two theories appear to hold water, according to research well publicized in the mainstream press, including in articles in the Oregonian, the major newspaper in the hungriest and fattest state in the nation.

First, junk food is cheaper, faster, and more convenient to low-income workers hustling between multiple jobs and familial duties. Second, food stamps often don’t last families a full month. People eat decently for three weeks, go hungry for a week, and then gorge themselves a bit on the first day of new food stamps. Research indicates that this food stamp cycle may encourage obesity. Such a cycle does not, of course, indicate ideal restraint and planning on the part of poor families, but neither does it indicate that they are being overfed.

I could hypothesize further that a lack of time to exercise, proper health care, and such luxuries as personal trainers might slant America’s weight problem along lines of income. But why should this statistic be used to attack our rapidly evaporating safety net, rather than being used to focus our attention on the outrageous presence of hunger, real painful hunger in this incredibly prosperous nation?

Millions of adults and children feel hunger in the United States today, and many millions more cannot be sure of avoiding it. This winter, with the President slashing funds for energy assistance and Besharov urging us to feel outrage at the spending of funds on food, countless families will be choosing between heating and eating. That’s a disgrace.

The minimum wage continues to decline in value, and the number of hours worked by low-wage workers to increase. If that makes them a few pounds fatter than the middle- and upper-class fatsoes in this country, why not restore some value to the minimum wage and provide everyone with free health care? Tax payers would save money on food stamps, and the nation as a whole would spend less on health care

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