Food stamps and the vicious circle of unemployment

Food stamps may be a key factor driving long-term unemployment.  Now re-branded as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and turned into a credit card-like piece of plastic to spare recipients the shame of letting others in the supermarket checkout line know they are buying food at taxpayers’ expense, the government feeding program seems to be having unintended consequences.

According to research done by the Gallup Organization:

Americans who have been out of work for a year or more are much more likely to be obese than those unemployed for a shorter time. The obesity rate rises from 22.8% among those unemployed for two weeks or less to 32.7% among those unemployed for 52 weeks or more.


Gallup tracks U.S. obesity levels daily using Americans' self-reported height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI) scores as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Individuals with BMI scores of 30 or higher are considered obese. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index also tracks the percentages of Americans who report that they have ever been diagnosed with various health conditions related to obesity, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

People who are unemployed but have access to plenty to eat are not only less motivated to seek any kind of work, even work lower paying than their previous employment, they have more leisure time on their hands, and may eat to ease the psychological pain of feeling unwanted and useless that unemployment brings up for many. But once they become fat, they become even more unemployable:

One key concern raised by the current analysis is that employers in industries that require manual labor, such as manufacturing and construction, may be less likely to hire candidates who are clearly out of shape. If so, workers in these industries -- who already earn lower wages, on average, than those in knowledge-based sectors -- may be even more likely to be caught in a negative cycle of joblessness and poor health.

More broadly, private employers' high healthcare costs might lead them to avoid taking chances on those who pose greater health risks, particularly in a tenuous economic climate. As a result, candidates who are obese and who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more may have two strikes against them even before they sit down for an interview.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and certainly the provision of food to those who have limited incomes bespeaks good intentions. But it also may lead many to behavior that is not onbly unhealthy, but which limits their prospects of returning to gainful employment.