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.

Deficit reduction debate is really about which class pays

The federal government and state governments across the country have been forced to confront sudden budget deficits in the wake of the 2008 recession. For state governments, the overriding cause of the deficits was a more than 30% reduction in state revenues following the economic downturn. For the federal budget deficit, the causes are more varied as this chart from the Economic Policy Institute indicates.

Although varied, none of the causes of the present deficit problems across the country can be reasonably blamed on poor and working people. The recession resulted from the near total economic meltdown that followed the bursting of the housing speculation bubble. Investment bankers — struck by a dangerous mix of greed, incompetence, and perverse incentives — are the culprits in that catastrophe.

The Bush tax cuts — which make up nearly 20% of the present federal deficit — were primarily a giveaway to the wealthy. Even the sudden public employee pension problems are largely the result of the economic recession as the investments of the pension funds took a hit when the market fell.

Despite the fact that poor and working people did not cause these deficits, efforts to reduce them have relied on policies primarily focused on making them pay. The infamous Scott Walker budget repair bill seeks to plug the Wisconsin state budget deficit in part by decreasing compensation for teachers and other public employees. Texas cut $15.2 billion dollars to shore up its deficit, primarily in the areas of education and health care. Ohio followed suit with Governor Kasich signing a budget that reduced taxes while slashing spending on education, libraries, nursing homes, and social programs.

As the eclipse of the federal debt-ceiling nears, it is not out of the question that similar approaches will be tried at the federal level, especially if Republicans win the present standoff on the matter. But cuts are not the only way to respond to budget deficits. Bringing in more revenue is the other option, an option which is not getting nearly the sort of play that it ought to.

Republicans predictably oppose revenue increases; the official line is that revenue increases reduce investment, destroy jobs, and fail to increase revenue due to decreased economic production. The response to this line has been disappointingly technocratic in nature.

Christina Romer pushes back with a dispassionate economic analysis about the relative economic impacts of spending cuts and tax increases, the takeaway being that spending cuts decrease economic production more than tax increases do. Paul Krugman keeps forwarding the Keynesian line that cuts would be devastating, and possibly result in a double-dip recession due to a decrease in consumer demand.

While these technocratic responses have merit, I think a much more moralistic argument is called upon here. What the deficit reduction question centers around is not really whether tax increases or spending cuts are best for the country as a whole. Analysis about the country as a whole is totally inadequate as the country is not made up of a unified population with unified economic interests. Cuts in education, health care, and worker pensions have no impact whatsoever on the wealthier classes as they already enjoy private education, can afford their health care, and do not rely on public pensions for their retirement.

The question of how we reduce our budget deficits is really a question about which class should pay. Should it be the poor and working people who had nothing to do with the causes of the present crisis, and — after 41 years of total wage stagnation — are not in a position to afford to pay for it to begin with? Or should it be wealthier people whose tax cuts are a significant driver of the deficit problem, and whose mismanagement of financial markets precipitated the crash that caused almost all of the rest of the budget shortfalls?

The answer to me is clear. Poor and working people should not be forced to pay for the tax cuts and market failures of the wealthy. To force them to do so is nothing more than a form of redistribution of income from poor and working people to the very rich.