The Ethics Of Food Stamps In The Culture of Reduced Circumstances
The High Cost Of Nutrition In America
A campaign to convince the public that 1) poverty and even 2) the US Food Stamp benefit program used by the officially-qualified less fortunate do not cause decreased health is increasingly the topic of research focus among Big 10 Universities and other organizations.
The American food stamp program has a catchy new name, though: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Gone are the days in which a woman could increase her pubic assistance cash payment and food stamps for each and every additional baby.
Very Little Money For Food
The average food stamp allocation was found to be only $101 per month per person in 2008 (Zagorsky and Smith, 2009; below), forcing recipients to purchase the cheapest food possible in order to stay alive.
A family of three does not receive $303, but quite a bit less, so family size does not help much. Gone are the days in which a woman could increase her pubic assistance cash payment and food stamps for each additional baby she has, without limit.
My metro area has four major food chains: Kroger, Giant Eagle, WalMart and Meijer, all of which I have researched for 4 years, regarding prices and quality. Kroger prices are generally highest, but WalMart groceries are now nearly equal in price here. Meijer prices have increased, and Giant Eagle prices range from low to high.
One grocer offers a pretty good line of "value brands" and only a few are substandard. The popular nickname for this line is "welfare food." It is cheaper and sometimes less nutritious than other lines.
Perhaps some think that the other lines cannot be that much more expensive, but a single apple costs $1.50 today, all the apples being $1.99 a pound as I looked at them. Three-pound bags of small mostly-core apples were $5.00, not much cheaper. Store-brand bread is $1.49 a loaf and higher. Even most "marked down" breads are $1.50 and higher per loaf. Hamburger is over $3.00 per pound.
Purchasing only the value brands with food stamps, the following is what one local mother and her two elementary-school aged children buy in one typical summer month in 2009 with their food stamps. The children were not able to benefit from a free summer lunch program, because all the slots were filled already.
- 10 1-lb loaves of wheat bread @ 0.78 = $7.80
- 15 packs hot dog buns @ 0.89 = $13.35
- 20 1-lb packs of bologna and salami @ $1.20 = $24.00
- 15 12-oz 10-packs hot dogs @ 0.79 = $11.85
- 15 packs processed cheese slices @ 1.20 = $18.00
- 20 1-lb boxes macaroni or spaghetti @ 0.77 = $15.40
- 20 26-oz jars spaghetti sauce @ $1.15 = $23.00
- 15 boxes cereal @ 1.50 = $7.50
- 8 dozen eggs @ 1.29 = $10.32
- 8 gallons milk @ 3.29 = $26.32
- 10 2-litre store-brand soda @ 0.79 = $7.90
- 4 10-pound bags potatoes @ 3.99 = $15.96
- 4 3-pound bags onions @ $1.67 = $6.68
- 10 pounds margarine @ 0.59 = $5.90
- 10 pounds bananas @ 0.59 = $5.90
- 5 heads of lettuce @ 0.99 - 4.95
- 5 family-size bottles catsup @ 1.00 = $5.00
- 5 large bottles mustard @ 1.00 = $5.00
- 10 8-oz salad dressings @ 0.99 = 9.90
- 8 packages cookies @ 1.20 = $9.60
After this, the family has about $20 or so for extras. They visit a food pantry once or twice a month for a 3-day supply of canned and packaged goods, but sometimes it is out of food. Neighbors sometimes kindly provide her with overrun from their gardens.
The mother is required to look for work 20 hours per week in order to retain benefits. She must also volunteer at her children's school during the school year, but the children are in the free lunch program there and that helps. The family has no vehicle and spends many hours weekly on a bus, but can walk to the grocery nearby.
How did this woman come to such reduced circumstances? Her husband died and left uncovered medical bills, she was laid off from work, and she has no family. Her husband's few remaining family members have also suffered layoffs and poverty far across the country where they live. Although educated, she has been depressed and the family diet may be contributing to this. She has some leads on a good job and may be able to leave public assistance behind in the fall. Probably, she will never want to eat another hot dog.
Another woman I know receives about $110 in food stamps for herself, she is diabetic, and she uses the money for a single week of groceries required for her health.
Note that in the Great Recession of 2008-2010 and on into the next decade, a large proportion of people living in the upscale Dublin OH, a high-income community and the #18 city on the Forbes.com list of Best 25 Places to Move for work in the US, found the need to rely on food stamps.
Government Findings: More Study Required
The website Amber Waves, of the United States Department of Agriculture and Economic Research Service, outlines their own three major findings in the following list. The body of research and the most recent research strongly challenges Numbers 1 and 3 below.
- Food Stamp Program participation does not increase the likelihood of being overweight or obese for men or children.
- Women are the only group for which multiple studies show a potential link between food stamp participation and body weight. [My note: This information may be biased and outdated (2006), because women are by far the overwhelming majority participants in the Food Stamp Program (FSP). Therefore, this finding, by using the word "only", diminshes the reality of results.]
- Devising policy changes for household members who may be at risk of gaining weight, without harming those who are not but still need food assistance, is a difficult challenge.
[http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/June08/Features/FoodStampsObesity.htm Accessed August 16, 2009]
Possible Study Bias
My primary concern with USDA findings is that they include only non-elderly women to 2006 and not all women and not to 2009. Elderly women make up a fast-growing portion of food stamp recipients, but all women and children are increasing in numbers in the FSP.
- Elderly women are the fastest-growing population cohort in America. By 2050, 1,000,000 Americans will be 100 years of age or older and most of them will be women.
- More and more women are aging into the 60s and into the 80s, needing to rely on food stamps in order to afford food at all.
- In my state specifically, only a minute number of men receive food stamps. The same is true of many states under the Welfare Reform policies of the late 1990s to today.
- About half of FSP recipients are children and obesity is a growing problem thoughout that cohort of children, according to recent findings. In fact from 1980 - 2008, obesity among Americans has more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. the FSP may be a contributing factor to its recipients.
- The USDA study does not include caseload increases after 2006 - For example, by March 2008, the number of food stamp recipients in Ohio had nearly doubled to include 10% of all people, as compared with 2001 (Columbus Dispatch, March 22, 2008). In 2008 and 2009, that number increased dramatically because of the Recession of 2008 - 2009. This likley occurred in other states as well.
I think that the latest several studies that examine poverty and the FSP dispute USDA findings up to 2006 very well.
Food Stamps Can Help Make Women Fat
That's an oversimplification of the facts. However a recent large study can tell us more about this:
Zagorsky, Jay L.; Smith, Patricia K. (2009). Does the U.S. Food Stamp Program contribute to adult weight gain? Economics and Human Biology, 7(2), 246-258.
accessed August 16, 2009]
Mr. Jagorsky is a successful research scientist at the Center for Human Resource Research of The Ohio State University.
He has published research regarding the world of work and how it impacts human beings. Specifically, he has examined the effects of on-the-job injuries and illness on wealth, the effects of monetary incentives on worker attrition; the impact of IQ on income, wealth and financial stress; wealth among communities of color; The Great Depression in the US and Canada; obesity as it affects the workplace; bankruptcy; and others
Ms. Smith is a well known researcher in the Department of Social Sciences of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is a professor of economics interested in the issues of poverty, welfare policy, and obesity, among others.
Why Is Obesity Important?
- Healthcare costs generally rise with obesity, including health insurance costs and payouts.
- Employers' costs increase with worker obesity in loss of productivy, increased days absent, increased illnesses, and increased group health insurance premiums.
Researchers Zagorsky and Smith examined relevant data from an ongoing nationwide study that followed adult human participants over a period of 14 years that ended with 2002. This is one of the US National Longitudinal Studies (the word long in longitudinal suggests that the time frame of these studies is lengthy, and such is the case). The researchers used data from the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), ongoing since 1979 and conducted at OSU.
NLSY began in 1979 with 12,686 men and women aged 14-21. It initially included yearly interviews of a sample that contained Blacks, Hispanics, economically disadvantaged non-black/non-Hispanics; and youths in the US military. The economically disadvantaged non-black/non-Hispanic and military participants were dropped, because of lack of funding. All others are interviewed every two years until death.
The NLSY has looked at 10,000 people regularly. In their food stamp/obesity study, Zagorsky and Smith compared 4,000 adult NLSY participants receiving food stamps against 6,000 participants that did not use food stamps. The researchers looked at comparisons in the same counties, to eliminate regions differences.
The results show that women using food stamps weigh proportionately more than women of the same socioeconomic status that do not use food stamps. There may be evidence that this fact impacts how Food Stamp benefits are distributed. The researchers state that infallible proof is not presented, but it would appear to me that this is a first step that needs further research a first alert to consumers.
The study shows that the average food stamp recipient (male and female together) has a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 1.15 points larger than non-recipients (BMI 30+ = obese). The longer one is “on food stamps”, the larger the BMI becomes. If a “weight gainer” anyway, the weight gain is faster during times of food stamp use. However, this is almost completely about women (all races) -- women that used food stamps had a BMI on average 1.24 points higher than women non-users. Male food stamp users did not show higher BMIs than non-users. For an average woman, height 5’4” – 5’6”, the BMI increase translates to almost 6 pounds. Over time, that could build up substantially.
White women food stamp users gained weight faster than did black women food stamp users.
Black And White
For food stamp recipients,
- white female BMI was 1.96 points higher and
- black female BMI 1.1 points higher
than the BMI of non-users. This is a significant difference.
A “normal” body weight would not reach the obese state on food stamps unless the person was in the FSP long-term, but since the American population is already fairly obese overall, this point may not be useful.
The average food stamp user in the study:
- Increased BMI 0.07 points yearly before using food stamps,
- Increased BMI 0.40 points yearly while on food stamps, and
- Increased BMI 0.20 points yearly leaving the FSP (more than before using them).
Federal statistics indicated the average FSP award as $81 individually per month in 2002. In 2008 it was still only $101. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided additional money to some states for nutrition in 2009. Thus, research to look at the years from 2006 (end of the USDA study) to 2010 would probably reveal interesting results.
Suggestions put forth by the Zagorsky-Smith study indicate that people using food stamps could be required to take a course on nutrition. In Ohio, they receive a brochure and are encouraged to take such classes. I don't think that works. The study also indicates that recipients that purchase fresh fruit/vegetables and other low-fat foods could be given higher allotments or receive discounts. I think this may nor may not work. It could easily result in a cycle of one month healthy foods, one month junk.
The study suggests that the FSP may set up a binge-purge cycle - one that suggests for eating disorders to me - with binge eating at the beginning of each month when recipients first receive their monthly allotment. -- The times of low food trick the body into survival mode and the body stores more fat. It is suggested that allotments be broken up into smaller amounts and time frames. However, I think this will likely increase paperwork and bureaucracy. Nevertheless, if this could be accomplished, it might be helpful.
During The Great Depression, my maternal great grandparents did this for themselves and my mother, whom they raised. They saved their Relief Orders, which acted as food stamps, in a secure place at the start of each month. Every afternoon, they gave my mother enough to purchase food for the evening meal. She walked down to the market daily and purchased a piece of meat and a few potatoes, sometimes some bananas and oranges or something else. The family raised a garden at home for vegetables and my great grandmother probably made bread. It was a successful system as far as it went, but variety and full nutrition were probably lacking.
Without an electronic application to monitor the product mix of purchasesmade with the FSP card at the grocery or market, and a means of denying less healthy purchases totally or after a certain number, then changing what FSP recipients eat could be difficult and the control may not be advisable.
Raising the monthly allotment and reducing food prices might or might not work in achieving a better nutritional diet, but I have a feeling that they would not.
We are left with a national desire to decrease obesity and healthcare costs, but partially defeated by a food stamp program that was put in place to help people get the nutrition they require. Meanwhile, I hope to be able to read relevant research covering the years 2006 – 2010 and the recession therein in the future.
Perhaps the $20,000,000 HIP (Healthy Incentives Pilot) program of SNAP for 2009 - forward has some solutions.
© 2009 Patty Inglish MS