The silver lining of the food desert study

A study published earlier this week debunked one of the primary explanations for why obesity disproportionately affects poor people. According to the Los Angeles Times, researchers found that better access to supermarkets did not positively affect the diets of poor people. The findings contradict the argument that food deserts — geographical areas that are devoid of healthy food options — are a driving factor for obesity among poor people.

The food desert argument is a very plausible one. Urban and rural areas inhabited by poor people often do not have supermarkets in their immediate vicinity. Consequently, residents of those areas have to rely on fast food restaurants and convenience stores to access food. These food sources primarily feature highly caloric items which, when consumed often enough, can drive obesity. On this view, the lack of access to healthy food options for poor communities is driving the obesity epidemic. If we want to remedy the problem, we need to find ways to end food deserts, and bring healthy food options to those who do not currently have them.

Although this argument makes good sense, it is apparently not supported by the data. In this particular study, researchers analyzed the diets of 5,000 study participants and found that their food choices did not change when healthier options came into their areas. The study does not prove that geographical access to healthy food is not necessary for a good diet. But it does prove that access alone is not sufficient. Individuals with low incomes and a proximity to fast food options still pursue those options whether healthier food is available or not.

These findings do not conflict with the idea that the conditions of poverty are a driving factor in the obesity epidemic. In fact, the researchers claim that having a low income was one of the primary factors that predicted a bad diet. Given that healthy foods cost more than unhealthy foods, low-income individuals are in a position where genuine access — not just geographical access — is not present. As long as healthier food remains more expensive and more time consuming than unhealthier food and poor people remain poor, the obesity epidemic will continue to plague poor communities whether food deserts exist or not.

Although the findings are somewhat disappointing, there is a silver lining to it. Recently Walmart has used the claim that they can help alleviate food deserts to try to get approval to build in cities in which they were previously unable. With this new study, that rhetorical approach suffers a serious blow.

It is clear that simply providing access to healthy food will not be enough. If poor communities do not also receive higher wages — something Walmart certainly will not provide — the increased geographical access will amount to nothing. Poor residents will still be forced to resort to unhealthy food options, and obesity and other diseases related to poor food will not be curbed at all. Walmart’s expansion might alleviate the problem of geographical access to healthy food, but its employment policies exacerbate the problem of genuine access to it.

Now that we know that geographical access does not, by itself, help with problems of food inequality, we can focus on the issue that everyone always hates to focus on instead — poverty.

Teacher-blaming education reform efforts continue in DC

The Washington D.C. school system fired 206 teachers Friday in the latest installment of the teacher-blaming reform efforts implemented by the now disgraced former chancellor of the school system, Michelle Rhee. According to the Washington Post, the 206 teachers were let go because they scored poorly on the IMPACT evaluation system that now dictates much of the District’s personnel decisions.

It was also revealed that 663 teachers scored very highly on the evaluation system which qualified them for high bonus payments of up to $25,000. This piece of the DC system was highlighted by Matthew Yglesias, who then remarked that the “idea that it’s somehow ‘anti-teacher’ to want to identify and compensate the best people in the system is bizarre.”

This ignorance-fueled dismissal of the substantive criticisms of the new, teacher-focused brand of education reform has sadly become common. Instead of engaging the critics of the present reform movement, proponents of it — especially those with technocratic leanings like Yglesias — just disregard the critiques as foolish and bizarre. When critics are not being depicted as laughably off-base, they are often decried as being apologists for greedy union teachers who obviously do not care if their students learn or not.

The reality of course is much different than that. If you were to only read the perspectives and polished public relations pieces of the education reformers, you would think that those opposing these reforms were grasping at straws to fight against a movement with overwhelming evidence and reason on its side. However, the actual case is the exact opposite of that: it is the education reformers who are desperately trying to cling to their position in the face of decisive evidence to the contrary.

For example, consider standardized testing as a means to measure teacher performance, this the dominant feature of the Rhee reforms in DC. Using standardized tests in this way runs into a litany of problems that reform proponents cannot explain away no matter how many times they flippantly ignore them.

The first problem is that it remains debatable what standardized tests actually measure. On the most fundamental level, it is not clear that standardized tests are precisely measuring anything at all. In addition to the obvious objections that testing acumen might not line up with knowledge acquired, there are more subtle objections about the testing process itself. Not only is it narrow, but it also can be gamed in ways that increase scores for reasons other than learning. Test-taking strategies, which are apparently taught in DC schools, are able to boost scores just by teaching students to approach the test differently, something unrelated to knowledge acquired. That alone should indicate how unreliable testing is in capturing just how much someone has learned.

But even if we assume that standardized testing is an accurate reflection of how much a student has learned, that does nothing to tell us what role the teacher had in that learning. Reformers try to get around that problem by using “value-added methods” of evaluation which only measure how much a student has improved under a specific teacher, not what their overall proficiency is. But even this does not tell us what is actually accounting for the improvement or lack thereof. In fact, an Economic Policy Institute paper noted the following about value-added methods:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.

If value-added methods of evaluation truly reflected the impact teachers are having on their students, this kind of variability would be impossible. Clearly, something else is in play that is outside of the scope of teacher performance.

The final objection to standardized testing is that it distorts teacher incentives in a way that encourages narrowly teaching to the test. Placing high stakes on the testing results also encourages cheating on the tests, a reality that befell the DC school district after Rhee implemented her testing-focused reforms.

With all of these clear problems, it is bizarre that these testing-heavy approaches are getting so much play by Yglesias and those like him. What is especially alarming is those who cheer along the firing of hundreds of teachers based on testing scores which the evidence actually shows are significantly influenced by things outside of the teacher’s control.

That last bit — ignoring factors outside of the teacher’s control — is really what is most disappointing about this whole movement. It avoids the sticky problems of massive childhood poverty and social inequality which clearly have an enormously negative impact on the homes and lives of children who are affected by them. It is those children who do poorly in school, and the conditions of poverty that they have to fight against are not imposed on them by teachers, but by society at large.

This more recent reform movement has totally abandoned any discussion about improving the non-school conditions of these students which I would argue have a much more serious impact on their performance. Instead, they have decided to blame and praise teachers for student failures and successes despite the fact that teachers are not the only factor, and are arguably not even the predominant one. That is why this reform movement is anti-teacher, and there is nothing bizarre about labeling it as such.

What warnings about job-destroying regulations really mean

One of the favored rhetorical approaches of groups which represent business interests is to remark that businesses create jobs. This is often coupled with the claim that laws which prevent certain business practices — paying unlivable wages, polluting the environment, creating unsafe work conditions — destroy jobs, or make it harder for businesses to create them. In service of this rhetoric, the Chamber of Commerce building in Washington D.C. has a banner on the outside of it reading “Jobs: Brought to you by the free market system.”

This particular line of rhetoric is of course over-simplistic and misguided, but also kind of amusing. To suggest that a particular economic system or agent in an economic system is the creator of jobs ignores the fact that there are diverse ways to carry out economic production. I would imagine a Chamber of Commerce building in the 1850s displaying a banner that read “Jobs: Brought to you by the chattel slavery system.” In Middle Ages England, a similar organization might erect a sign with the slogan “Jobs: Brought to you by the feudal system.” Additionally, slave masters and feudal lords would be triumphed as job creators, and policies which made it difficult for them to use slaves and serfs would be depicted as job-destroying.

Despite what the banner says, jobs are not brought to you by the free market system. After all, the existence of jobs long preceded the existence of the free market system. If you were to dig deep into the conservative rhetoric on job creation, what you would really find it saying is this: In the capitalist system, private owners of capital must be willing to participate in production for it to occur at all.

What is meant by the claim that businesses create jobs is that capital — which is what business owners have — is necessary for production to take place. Without it, those bringing their labor to exchange in the market will have no place to sell it, and will thus be without a job. The argument that the use of capital is necessary for capitalist production is true by definition. The point is not compelling, and does nothing but describe the mechanics of capitalist modes of production.

So what then is the point being made when business groups say that a particular action is job-destroying? In many cases, that line is used in ways that are so disingenuous as to be laughable. For example, business lobbyists claimed that totally voluntary suggestions that companies not advertise unhealthy food to kids were “job-killing government outreach.”

In other cases, what business groups mean when they say some particular requirement is job-killing is that owners of capital are not willing to make productive use of it if the requirement is put in place. So when they say that a regulation which forbids a local plant from poisoning drinking water will kill jobs, what they mean is that owners of capital are unwilling to use their capital if they are not permitted to poison the drinking water. If they cannot cut costs by dumping their waste into the local water supply, the productive enterprise is not appealing enough for them to carry out. Instead, they might do something else with their capital like buy treasuries or take it overseas to places where they are allowed to pollute drinking water.

In essence then, this whole rhetoric about policies hindering job creation is really nothing more than a threat. Owners of capital are threatening to basically carry out a sort of “capital strike” if the policy is put into place. In the same way that laborers can shut down production by withdrawing their labor, capitalists can shut down production by withdrawing their capital. Claiming that some requirement will kill jobs then is nothing but a way of signaling — often bluffing — that business owners will refuse to employ their capital under those requirements.

What is important to note then is that it is not safety or environmental regulations that kill jobs; it is the reaction of business owners to those regulations which do so. Despite some evidence to the contrary, owners of capital are actually human beings with agency. They do not have to make the choice to withdraw their capital to avoid conducting their businesses in moral ways. That is a decision that they make.

If a business owner closes up shop to avoid requirements that she behave ethically, any reasonable person should blame her for being an awful human being. But instead, this clever rhetoric about policies destroying jobs has effectively masked what is really going on, and caused people to forget that the actual agent of job destruction is not the person who imposes the minimally humane regulations, but the person who refuses to comply with them.