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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Micromanaging the poor, soft drink edition

The New York Times has an article on the horror of people on SNAP (Food Stamps) buying soft drinks.

The findings show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for about 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food. “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s pretty shocking.”
Is there a gigantic difference? Maybe not so gigantic:
SNAP households spent 9.3 percent of their grocery budgets on soft drinks alone. That was slightly higher than the 7.1 percent figure for households that do not receive food stamps 
That's statistically more, and we could be alarmist and say that's OVER 30% MORE!!! But let's chill a bit.

1. On the right, SNAP has always been criticized for various purchases: lobster, for example. So now we have nutrition and public interest experts criticizing from the other side.  Yet, on the whole, the purchases are pretty similar, and it's easy to theorize that this is mostly a way for talk show hosts on the right and public interest groups on the left to get some press.

2. At least part of the higher soft drink purchases may be a result of the soda trade -- when you get food stamps, buying lots of soda (e.g. 24 packs) which you then sell to other retailers below their cost, turning the soda into cash. That's an abuse of the program, of course, but not a nutritional disaster.

3. Most importantly, we can see this as an attempt to micromanage the poor from a position of moral or nutritional superiority by those who "know better".

Those who "know better" get their 15 seconds of TV, radio, or internet fame, while making little difference in the lives of those on SNAP.  Not much lobster is likely to be bought with SNAP. If the percent spent on soft drinks declined from 9.3% to 7.1% it might help, but probably not all that much. What's more likely is that the carping results in cutting funding from an expensive program, and how much is cutting SNAP going to help the poor?  Aren't we missing the big picture here, which is that feeding the hungry is basically a work of mercy?

4. Finally, I'd note the lack of agreement on nutrition.  Fifteen years ago, eggs were the enemy; now it's soda. The importance of low sodium is unsettled. What sort of fat is bad, good, or less harmful? Is fish helpful to eat, or a source of mercury and harmful to the balance of the ocean?  All these are tough questions not completely settled.

I'm reminded of my own family of four. We used to eat together, but then we ended up with one person a vegetarian, another a vegan, and a third on the high-meat Atkins diet. Other than lettuce (and of course, not the emptiness of iceberg lettuce) there was little that could be eaten in common and we stopped doing family suppers. Fifteen years later, none of the three are vegetarian, vegan, or on the Atkins diet.

5. Do we really help people by trying to micromanage them? Yes, there are obvious things like drug addiction, alcoholism, etc. but even there our attempts are more likely to be resisted than helpful. But in these cases there are very, very real harms to the person and those around them. It's hard to put sugary soft drinks into that category, even though bad diet can lead to obesity and diabetes decades down the road.