"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Food Stamps, Food Shows, And Whole Foods

Suzanne Moore writing in The Guardian (3.27.13) has observed that food is the new class signifier; i.e., people are labeled and put in a socio-economic bin based on what they eat and how they pay for it. Those who receive food stamps are at the bottom of the heap, vilified as welfare queens and idle layabouts; and those foodies at the top of food chain who pay high prices at Whole Foods for organic produce and free-range chickens; and who photograph their painterly creations.  In the middle are the foodie wannabees who watch television cooking shows.  They may not have a whisk in the kitchen, but won’t miss an episode of Iron Chef.

Food, of course, has always been a class signifier. Ancient Greek heroes ate well and were attended by vestal virgins:

Aristocratic Romans were always lounged in great halls, were served figs and grapes by Nubian slaves, drank wine out of silver goblets, and ate meat, fish, fowl, and game.

The commoners, of course, had to make do with bread and circuses, the odd vegetable, rancid wine made from the dregs of the rich, and stringy, old goat.

Nothing much changed over the years.  In medieval England kings and their courtiers pulled at great joints of meat with their hands, ate with their fingers, and wiped them on the dog; but they still ate well with plenty of food and drink:

Later, the French kings raised food to an art form.  Louis XIV was one of the first locavores since he forbade the importation of non-French cheeses.

I am sure that cavemen had a pecking order.  The strongest, most able hunters got the best piece of killed meat; and the most beautiful woman got tossed a chunk of liver.

So, we modern-day foodies have a long tradition on which to base our lifestyles; and there are still plenty of poor who eat cornbread, fatback, McDonalds, and chitlins. Nothing much has changed since the days of the Romans, Henry I, or Louis XIV except that today we have a vast middle class which remembers all too well the fried catfish and dumplings of its youth, tucks in routinely to pot roast and mashed potatoes, but aspires to seared foie gras with a raspberry coulis and organic mission figs shown on TV.

Ms. Moore doesn’t like this state of affairs and laments the lot of the poor.  They not only have been marginalized and dismissed as unproductive, irresponsible social parasites; but have been treated in the most patronizing way.  Food stamps are the ultimate disgraceful act of indifference.  The rich simply cannot bear the thought of direct economic subsidies to the poor to alleviate their poverty, and must provide them with ‘in-kind’ contributions.  Government can put restrictions, codicils, and conditionalities on food stamps (no alcohol, snacks, soda, or chewing gum) while giving cash transfers is tantamount to waste, fraud, and misuse. 

There are really only three ways to deal with food and the poor.  First, continue the food stamp program, and continue to engineer it – ‘coercive compassion’ as it has been called – so that recipients are directed away from unhealthy food choices.  This is a particularly bad option because nutrition advocates can be very rabid and stubborn (viz. Michael Bloomberg), the definition of proper nutrition seems to change every few years with new scientific discoveries, and it is an unwarranted intrusion into individuals’ lives. Wealthy or poor, Americans should be free to choose and suffer the consequences or reap the benefits of their choices.  It is up to them to assess risk, cost-benefit, and comparative advantage.

Second, one could drop the food stamp program altogether for most people and reserve it for the poorest of the poor – i.e. those who have no chance to move up and out of the miserable and unfortunate conditions in which they live.  Those who have lived off government welfare would have to fend for themselves, and might have more incentive to do this if they had no food stamps, Aid to Dependent Children, or welfare checks in the mail.

Third, government could increase its Earned Income Tax Credit program which is a direct cash transfer program.  Low-income individuals who are employed get a tax credit based on their income and number of children, and the program is set up to start off high, plateau, and then taper off.  Thus, a very low income family gets maximum tax credits, keeps them as they rise in income (incentive to advance), reach a plateau, then see the benefits tapers off (disincentive to work less).  The program has had solid bipartisan support. Moore cites Harvard economist Edward Glaeser who is very much in favor:

But the added cost of relying on in-kind transfers is that, unlike our cash-based programs, these efforts are rarely well- designed to limit the adverse incentives that come from anti- poverty programs. Any assistance program that channels aid to people who earn less creates an incentive to work less hard. Any aid that is asset-tested destroys the incentive to accumulate capital.

Well-designed programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, do as much as possible to limit these negative incentives and even create some positive effects. That credit initially increases with earnings, creating an incentive to go to work; benefits taper off slowly, which limits the tendency to work too little. The design is smart, and the program seems to have encouraged employment substantially (Bloomberg.com February 2012)

Glaeser goes on to say that all in-kind programs should go.  They are riddled with inefficiencies, lack of coordination, and rife with possibilities for misuse.  Worse, they are disincentives for employment and economic advancement.

There is a natural solution: Combine our disparate aid efforts into a single program that delivers cash assistance and minimizes perverse incentives. We may still want some in-kind assistance, particularly for health care, and that could be handled by issuing vouchers. But for most aid, the Friedman solution of cash still seems right. By combining our aid programs and primarily giving cash, we can have a more efficient welfare system that provides more freedom and better incentives for aid recipients.

This is a sensible, well-thought out position.  It is based on rational economic analysis, eliminates irrational government decision-making, removes the stigma of welfare from poor families, and avoids any name-calling and castigation of the rich. There will always be class distinctions in society, and food will always be an important signifier.  It is more important to do as Glaeser has done – suggest an economically sensible, politically acceptable, and sociologically reasonable solution to a persistent problem – rather than jump on foodies or Iron Chef addicts for their excesses.

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