Monday, May 21, 2007


This week, Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH 17), is taking the "Food Stamp Challenge". Basically, he is trying to live on the $21.00 a day that a person receives in food stamps. After the first day, he writes:

So far today I have eaten a quarter container of cottage cheese, one and a half peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and had one cup of coffee. It still amazes me that so many Americans live like this every day. I already notice a difference in my energy level. After only a day on this diet, I’m tired and hungry, but I’m looking forward to talking to people about my experience, and making people aware of the millions across the country who deal with this every day.

To all of those crazies and not-so-crazies who think that the only thing that poor people need to do is "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" does not know anything about what it is like to go hungry on a day-to-day basis. First, there is the simple bad luck. hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has an excellent post on many of the issues raised on Tim Ryan's blog. At one point, Tim Ryan lost the peanut butter and jelly that he was supposed to eat for that week's meals because it was taken by TSA officers at the airport (or, as hilzoy points out, "there are lots of ways for a jar of peanut butter to come to grief. Your kid can eat it when you're not looking. Your grocery bag can break, leaving it shattered on the sidewalk. Similarly, the rats and roaches can get into your corn meal, or your wheat bread.").

But, what I like is that Tim Ryan is also pointing out the structural inequalities that cause much of this hunger:

As several people have mentioned it the comments, a problem faced many across the country, especially the inner-city poor, are the lack of low-cost food stores in an easily accessible area. These people can’t afford to drive to a Wal-Mart in the suburbs for the bargains; they aren’t members of the warehouse club stores. If you are constrained to where you can walk or take public transportation, then you can only shop at the places in your neighborhood, and you are forced to pay whatever they charge. That is EXACTLY what I was doing. I had the option to head out to Costco or Shoppers and decided instead to replicate as close as possible the REAL experience of someone who can't afford a car and is constrained by public transportation. As you'll see when I publish the video blog I'm working on, we took the Metro out to the store.

This being something that I study in my academic life (the unequal distribution of resources in neighborhoods), I will let you guess which areas are traditionally underserved by grocery stores and farmers markets (hint -- in urban areas, think of areas that are not white and not wealthy). Hilzoy also points out other things that make it even more difficult: 1) Tim Ryan had a staff to help him learn to live on $21.00 a day; 2) He wasn't a single parent trying to care for children as he was doing this (and, therefore, needing to pay for extra fares on the subway or find childcare), 3) he was able to spend an hour-and-a-half in the store looking for the food that he could buy for $21.00, 4) he was doing this while living in D.C. and therefore had access to public transportation (as opposed to say, Pheonix).

In other words, for those who idolize Horatio Alger stories, I am not sure that they would understand that, even with the meager help that poor people are afforded, discriminatory policies prevent them from having access to food in the first place, even if they do have access it's not enough to provide strength enough to pull on one's own bootstraps and finally, the safety net is so threadbare that it can't provide against simple bad luck.

Even for all of this, hilzoy leaves out one important factor that is not discussed. Most poor people don't have access to a supermarkt, grocery store, green grocer or fruit stand; however, what they do have access to is convenience stores. In those convenience stores, there are hundreds -- actually, probably thousands -- of different types of processed corn. Combos, pretzels, Fritos, doughnuts, soda pop, "fruit" juices, etc. all contain some kind of processed corn. Why? Because our government subsidizes the production of corn like it was as vital to living as water. At the same time, the prices of healthy fruits and vegetables are too high for a family to be able to afford on $21.00/week/person

I guess the question becomes, what can be done? If the problem is partly that there is not enough money to live on in a week, then that solution seems pretty straightforward - increase the allowance per week. But, if the problem is unequal access to food stores and quality produce, then the answer becomes more tricky. One could offer incentives to invest those types of stores in poor areas - but those incentives are generally tax breaks which come at the cost of defunding many of the programs that are designed to benefit the very people who need the food stores in the first place. Alternatively, a city could "redevelop" areas and provide the kinds of investment that make it profitable for grocery stores to invest - but that would probably come at the cost of pushing current residents out of the city. One option that I think could be successful in not only providing food, but also investment opportunities for current residents is microfinance loans to help people get their own businesses started.

The way that microfinance loans work is there is usually a collective of people [in orginial incarnations, it was only available for women - this was explained in one acadmic talk as the result that men would "simply drink the money away"] who receive small loans individually. They are able to use these loans to build a business that will provide them with the opportunity to make money and pay back the loans, which then becomes capital for the next person in the collective to invest. The idea is that people rely on each other to pay back loans to build a community. The intuition behind this has also been used to explain why immigrant communities have thrived in this country - small investors (convenience store, laundromat, handymen, fruit and vegetable market owners help each other out with loans).

I have to admit, I was a little very dubious of this idea when I first heard it. I mean, it seemed like another avenue through which the "unfallible free-market would prevail" arguments that is part of the larger neoliberal formulation of the 21st century. But, after reading more about it and thinking through what it would mean in precisely situations like this, it seems like a good idea. I mean, it can't take too much to help a small businessperson set up a viable business plan with a small (probably less than $20,000, for which it is surprisingly hard to obtain a loan -- hear Sudhir Venkatesh talk about in conjunction with his new book, Living Underground: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor on Fresh Air), especially if we eliminate some of the subsidies for corn production given to huge agribusiness firms that are causing many of the health problems to begin with! Maybe its a stretch, but I hope to see Congressman Ryan do something about the structural factors since he has identified them as being a problem.


AG said...

Great post! I recently posted an article I wrote that about Microfinancing. Please stop by and take a look.
~~Amanda Gladden

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