Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Government as Savior: Feed the Hungry, Slim the Obese

Pic from a 1949 'Life Magazine' article on obesity
It's ironic: the poorest Americans, the ones on government food stamps, tend to be the fattest. Which calls for another government program to get them slim.

Reading a fascinating series of articles in the Washington Post by Eli Saslow about poverty and obesity, I was struck by the underlying assumptions fueling many expensive, publicly-funded efforts to "save" the obese poor.

Everyone wants to spare people illness and pain. Everyone wants to enhance longevity and add to quality of life. No one wants to pay for medical services for poor people if their illnesses can be avoided. In fact, with the laughable state of Obamacare in its first roll-out weeks, it appears no one wants to pay for governmentally-required health plans.

But we're paying for a lot of health-oriented programs, anyway. One Post article describes ignorance and incapacity in nutritious food preparation of residents in Hidalgo County, Texas, near the Mexican border. Forty percent of the population there relies on federal programs to pay for comestibles, a percentage nearly the same as the area's 38% obesity rate. Local food stores don't offer many vegetables, but do a brisk business in Cheetos smothered in melted cheese. Is it greedy grocers who are pumping pounds onto hapless neighbors, or, could it be that if these outlets offered veggies, neighbors would still opt for Cheetos?

slide show with the Washington Post series offers a rather disheartening, though honest answer. One photo shows a portly woman guffawing in a nutrition class when the teacher suggests serving smaller portions. "Yeah, well, try telling that to my husband!" she retorts.

In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasts city efforts brought a 21% decline in "healthy food deserts" in the last two years, obesity remains high. Childhood obesity rates are notably higher than the national average; overall, 27% of Chicagoans are obese, 34% overweight, and 38% of "normal" BMI. Reporting on a study that made national projections, the Chicago ABC affiliate last year headlined, "Half of Illinoisans to be Obese by 2030."

A conundrum that health experts ponder is that food stamp recipients--whose need for sustenance is great enough for the government to step in--are disproportionately obese. As I frequently note, more and more non-gluttony causes of obesity are surfacing. Offering vegetables to the poor obese, even with education explaining how and why to cook them, can't affect most causes being discovered. It's condescending and silly to think that government-programs for classes, gyms and markets with produce can have much effect on the poor's collective girth.

That relates to the "government will provide" mentality inculcated in the public by Obama's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the values-free new moniker for Food Stamps.

Under Obama-administration direction, taxpayer-funded "outreach" workers infiltrate low-income pockets to sign-up as many candidates as possible. One illuminating Washington Post article follows a recruiter as she approaches residents of a shabby central Florida trailer park, pursuing her quota of 150 seniors per month. Her method is to bring piles of free food to attract a crowd, and then lure them to enroll, using a set of SNAP-provided talking points crafted to silence listener's doubts.

If a prospect hesitates because of welfare stigma, the recruiter responds, "You worked hard and the taxes you paid helped create SNAP."

If a candidate's embarrassed, the recruiter soothes, "Everyone needs help now and then." If accepting denotes failure, the recruiter just normalizes the experience: "Lots of people, young and old, are having financial difficulties." The recruiter might add that with the step-up in loading people to the dole, fellow recipients likely live next door. In Florida, the setting for the story, food stamp enrollment soared in just the last 5 years from 1.45 million to 3.35 million beneficiaries.

The whole effort riles me, not only because of the increase in federal tax burden, but because stifling moral objections scoots a vulnerable population down the chute to permanent dependence. Of course, the presently-empowered political party gains supporters when more voters rely on them rather than on family, church or self-starting entrepreneurship. It's a smart move for Democrats to ease in as many new SNAP dependents as possible, because they form the voting bloc guaranteeing support for politicians who guard their entitlements. Challengers who would rein in government largess become the bad guys grabbing food away from the hungry.

Clever strategies cajole low-income elders with salesmanship and persuasion. The stigma of ripping stamps or paper slips from a coupon book is gone. Now, recipients swipe a cute little card called an EBT, for Electronic Benefits Transfer. Looks just like a credit card, but you never get the bill.

In an astonishing reversal of right and wrong, recruiters claim that taking federal assistance is actually altruistic, because it brings money into the local economy and thereby creates jobs. Despite the appeal to civic responsibility, seniors are reticent to sign up, and only 38% of eligible Floridians have, a rate half that of other age groups. "That means about 300,000 people over 60 are not getting their benefits, and at least $381 million in available federal money isn’t coming into the state," spins the Post article. Mr. Low-Income Senior, it's your duty  to, well, snap it up.

The article describes the moral dilemma of one older Florida resident who prided himself throughout his life in being one of society's "makers" rather than "takers." He resists shifting to a new demoralizing status that confirms his failure, but the implication is that sooner or later, he will succumb.

While certainly some assistance to people in need is important, the search-and-SNAP effort brings two kinds of harm. First is replacing initiative with entitlement. And the second is the intrusion of public agencies' tentacles into the crevices of families' lives, all the way to their dinner plates. Cheetos smothered in melted cheese are awful as daily fare, but the issue isn't lack of broccoli, but the desire and energy to create vegetable-laden dishes--that children eschew anyway. Poor single parents, especially, are exhausted, and they'll never pay six dollars for salad when the Cheetos their kids crave cost just two. And once again, obesity can be driven by chemical, genetic or environmental causes that fruit and veggies can't cure.

 Government-as-savior's response is to do something. Subsidize greens for poor people. Install basketball hoops in every cul-de-sac. Send nutrition educators to every low-income home. Help these poor people!

Concerned legislators began throwing money at obesity ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and even with Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, it seems obesity outruns it all. Mrs. Obama seems to see the futility in her efforts; last week she officially turned her focus from pummeling childhood obesity to encouraging college. Her new cause is a more constructive direction, because the college message says "you can make something of yourself." Much better than "we can make less of you."

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