May 9, 2011
Cut the Bloat: Both Ours and Washington'sBy Paul Gessing and Deane Waldman
The intersection between government policy and food has been a hot topic these days. At the same time, President Obama and Republicans in Washington are engaged in a struggle over how to resolve trillion dollar annual deficits.
Clearly, there is no single or simple and certainly no painless solution to our deficit problem. Difficult, unpopular choices are necessary. The good news, however, is that eliminating depression-era agriculture subsidies would be good not only for our bloated government, but good for our bloated waistlines as well.
Even in the budgetary never-neverland that is Washington, $16 billion in annual spending is real money. That is the amount the federal government gives out every year in agriculture subsidies. Under current law, a vast majority of those subsidies are given to corn for meat production, with wheat, rice, dairy, and sugar all receiving significant subsidies. Notice the absence of any subsidies for fruits and vegetables.
Why would the government use your tax dollars to support foods that contribute to America's obesity problem? The simple answer is that Congress responds primarily to lobbying rather than public interest, logic, and especially not to hard evidence. Big agriculture spends millions on lobbyists while others -- "family farmers" -- cannot afford to do so.
Agriculture subsidies are not the only way in which the federal government manipulates food policies to our detriment. According to a recent report from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, the federal school lunch program actively contributes to childhood obesity. Similar concerns have been raised about the food stamp program by Jay Zagorsky. This Ohio State scientist calculated that, controlling for socioeconomic status, women who received food stamps were more likely to be overweight than non-recipients. Further, the same individuals gained weight faster while receiving assistance than when they were not (eating via food stamps).
Rep. Paul Ryan's budget would offer block grants for food stamps (known as SNAP) at an annual savings of $12.7 billion over the next 10 years, thus allowing the states to manage their own food stamp programs. Similar policies could and should be applied to the school lunch program as well.
Block grants generate outrage from those who benefit from the status quo. These detractors shout that loss of Federal dollars will harm poor people. In fact, State experimental programs with new models have had great success, for example in welfare.
According to the USA Today, in the 12 years since caseloads peaked at 5.1 million families in 1994, millions have left the welfare rolls for jobs. Earnings for the poorest 40% of families headed by women doubled from 1994 to 2000, before recession wiped out nearly half the gains. Poverty rates for children fell 25% before rising 10% since 2000.
Simply put, the same thing can happen to food welfare programs. Reforms can be "win-win," meaning individuals can win and we can reduce total spending. We simply don't have the money as a nation to continue these programs in their current forms. Giving states more flexibility to manage their own affairs could result in reduced obesity and overall nutritional improvement.
We must always keep in mind that the Federal bureaucracy is a ravenous beast. It consumes huge amounts of the money going into all social welfare programs. Giving States their own money back and letting them experiment is one good way to starve the "beast."
Smoking cigarettes used to be the #1 preventable health risk factor in America. Now it is obesity. Today, one in ten Americans is diabetic. If current trends continue, that number will be one in three by 2050. Some researchers estimate that one third of all expenses for health care service can be linked to obesity.
Statistics show that obesity is concentrated in the poorer segments of our population. Two reason for this are: 1) unhealthy foods are cheaper and more available; and 2) the vast majority of mainstream media advertising by "Big Food" entices people to eat highly processed, sugar-laden, preservative-added foods.
A reduction is our waistlines would not only cut costs of health care but would increase national productivity. To put it bluntly and in the most politically incorrect phrasing possible, who is more productive: an American weighing four hundred pounds who has diabetes and cannot stand for long because his knees need replacement, or a 125 pound Asian man who hasn't needed a doctor in years?
Obesity stands at intersection of fiscal policy and health policy. At present, Washington is subsidizing "Big Food," which addicts us to foods that make us obese. What if Congress reversed its approach and subsidized the production and distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, say with tax credits? Imagine the impact on our overweight population if apples were cheaper, more available, and more attractive than Cheetos.
If we cut the bloat out of Washington and use market forces to promote healthier eating, we could create a win-win by reducing costs and increasing productivity. Sounds like a great deal!
Paul Gessing and Deane Waldman are both at Rio Grande Foundation in New Mexico. Paul is Executive Director; Deane is Adjunct Scholar and Board member.