Link between Poverty and Obesity

Image credit: Washington Times

New column published in the Washington Times.

by James A. Bacon

A while back, I attended the homecoming game between Collegiate and St. Christopher’s, two prep schools in the Richmond, Va., area. For the most part, the parents in the football stands were well-to-do professionals, executives and business owners who could afford to pay stiff private school tuition. Midway through the game, my daughter articulated a thought that had been coalescing in my own head: “It’s amazing. There aren’t any fat people here.”

I had quite a different impression a few years ago when, on a lark, I attended a World Wrestling Federation event, a form of entertainment favored by the working class. I was stunned. I’d never seen so many morbidly overweight people before. I felt as if I’d been teleported to the Brookhaven Clinic.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, surging from 13 percent of the population in 1960 to 34 percent in 2006 and contributing to epidemics of hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Treating those maladies costs an estimated $117 billion annually, half of which is financed by Medicare and Medicaid.

While everyone laments the trend, there is no consensus on what causes it. The rise of obesity coincides with the falling price of groceries over the long term and the proliferation of fast food outlets, making food more affordable and more accessible to all segments of society. But that’s not a sufficient explanation. If the means to purchase more food and patronize restaurants were what made people fat, wealthy people would be the butterballs, not poor people. But the opposite is the case. It is well-documented in countries across the developed world that obesity is correlated with lower socioeconomic status.

Why would that be? One explanation blames forces beyond poor peoples’ control. “Low-income and food-insecure people are especially vulnerable due to the additional risk factors associated with poverty, including limited resources, limited access to healthy and affordable foods, and limited opportunities for physical activity,” asserts the Food Research and Action Center. “Households with limited resources … often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling – meaning that they try to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger.”

So, the prodigious appetite for potato chips and cheese puffs is driven by “food insecurity.” Yeah, right. Here’s an alternate explanation: People buy junk food because it tastes good, it gives them a brief sensation of pleasure, and they don’t care about the consequences – not because they are trying to “maximize their calories per dollar.”

Three economists, Charles J. Courtemanche, Garth Heutel and Patrick McAlvanah, have just written a paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, exploring the influence of “time preference” – the value that people place upon present consumption versus future consumption – upon dietary choices. Some people are impatient, the authors observe. They have less impulse control. They are less willing to defer gratification.

Drawing upon the 2006 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which includes a wealth of personal data, including Body Mass Index (BMI) as well as answers to questions regarding hypothetical time-related trade-offs, the scholars conclude: “As economic factors lower the opportunity cost of food consumption, impatient individuals gain weight while the most patient individuals do not. BMI therefore rises, but the rise is concentrated among a subset of the population.”

Translation: As food has gotten more affordable over the years, some people have gotten fatter because they are more impulsive and shortsighted and prefer to eat food that gives them a quick sugar rush over healthier foods that don’t.

Many lower-income people are like children from more affluent families who also suffer from impulse-control issues. My eighth-grade son, left to his own devices, would happily subsist on Cheerios, Klondike bars and macaroni and cheese. The reason he doesn’t is that my wife and I strip the house bare of candy, cookies, ice cream, potato chips, Twinkies, Fritos, Cheetos, sugared soft drinks and other cheap carbs. In a grueling battle of wills, we compel him (with varying degrees of success) to work broccoli, fruit and garden salads into his diet. We subject him to lectures on how his eating habits today will affect his health and physical appearance in the far distant future – like when he’s in high school.

The difference is culture. To achieve success in the United States requires a willingness to excel at school, forgo income while spending years in college, subject oneself to the strictures of the workplace and live within one’s means – in sum, to stifle impulse and embrace the boring bourgeois virtues. The willingness to defer gratification is the same trait it takes to maintain disciplined eating and exercise habits over decades. That’s a big reason the preppy moms and dads of Richmond have plump wallets but lean derrieres while many of the working stiffs across town are wheezing and overweight.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


15 responses to “Link between Poverty and Obesity”

  1. Before anyone jumps all over me, let me make something clear. I’m not saying that the willingness to defer gratification is the *only* factor influencing where people end up in life. It’s just one factor. Some people start with tremendous advantages (I’m one of the lucky ones), and others with great disadvantages. But a willingness to defer gratification is a major determinant of whether an individual experiences upward or downward mobility.

    Let me make one other thing really clear. I know it’s not easy for a poor person to be able to maintain a healthy diet on a food stamp budget. But I can point to a vast body of anecdotal evidence that many poor people waste a lot of their limited food budgets on junk.

  2. as soon as your kids leave home..they will revert to their innate tendencies. the issue is why do they have those tendencies to start with and that their tendencies are probably not much different from lower income kids.. the difference being..right now.. the influence of parents ..which is ephemeral, at least in the short term.

    but here is a survey I’d like to see… the BMI of kids on subsidized lunches.

    ps. – I don’t buy the “poor can’t buy health food” concept one iota.

    can you imagine school subsidized lunches being only “healthy” and everyone in the cafeteria knows EXACTLY who’s eating subsidized lunches?

    wouldn’t that be quite a revelation, eh?

  3. Why do you all keep making things so difficult?

    One day at a time. Live for today. You never know what tomorrow will bring. But. Tomorrow never comes. Don’t mean nothing.

    More than words. A Lifestyle.

  4. Poverty? Closer than you think.

  5. the “near poor” .

    are those who are living beyond their means and we were warned some time ago that we as a society were living with a higher standard of living than we could afford and that where many of us ought to be instead – is nearer to the standard of living for many others who live in other industrialized countries – better than much of the world – but not as good as America …. at it’s zenith.

    the middle class blue collar worker still exists – in Europe and Asia but the level of education to perform that work has advanced greatly and American schools no longer deliver it to the non-college-bound kids.

  6. Some of it has nothing to do with junk foods, but simply the fact they depend on inexpensive and high carb foods like beans and potatoes.

  7. no matter what you eat – you do know how many calories and fact are in them.

    in theory, inexpensive food ‘helps’ the poor by giving them plenty to sustain themselves.

    the fact that they eat more – knowingly (or should know) leads to the idea of personal responsibility for your own self – physically and fiscally.

    being poor should be no excuse for being obese.

    we have too many excuses for too many things that boil down to a lack of personal responsibility – no matter your finances.

  8. Darrell has this one right. It’s not an inability to defer gratification. It’s not food insecurity.

    It is a culture of hopelessness. Having few options in life is depressing. And the ultimate slogan of the depressed? “Don’t mean nothing.”.

  9. as a drunken rock star used to croon…. ” Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free.”–io

  10. besides… if the choice is between being hooked on drugs verses hooked on bad food… it’s a no-brainer…right?


  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Making such sweeping observations based on two Richmond prep schools that cater to an overpaid and very limited professional class in that snooty state capital is classist and elitist beyond belief. It shows the incredible narrow-mindedness of the author. Could it be that the rich have the time and the money to play golf, go to the gym and let their personal trainers and chefs choose their menus? Next thing, we’ll be told that the poor deserve to die because they are less productive.

  12. Gee, Peter, I have a kid in prep school but I don’t go to the gym. I don’t play golf. I don’t have a personal trainer. And I don’t have a personal chef. I even do my own grocery shopping. As for having the time to work out, I’m pretty sure that a high-powered attorney or executive working 60 hours a week has a lot less free time for exercise than someone working a 9-to-5 job. Being a couch potato is a state of mind.

    As for the statement, “Next thing, we’ll be told the poor deserve to die because they are less productive,” is such a reductio ad absurdum that it does not warrant the dignity of a response.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “Let them eat Twinkies” Right, Jim

  14. “Next thing, we’ll be told that the poor deserve to die because they are less productive.”

    Hmm.. Useless Eaters gotta go. That algae bloom of human kind.
    I read something about that once a long time ago. Wonder if those guys are still around?

  15. My father did a long term study of the diet and exercise habits of a cohort of Harvard grads vs a cohort of Boston longshoremen.

    The going in premise was that the Harvard boys wouuld have sedentary jobs while the longshoremen engaged in heavy labor.

    But longshoremen became automated and Harvard grads became aware of the necessity for healthy lifestyles. By the end of the study their initial premise proved false and the longshoremen became ill and died sooner.

Leave a Reply