Why So Poor, Fatty?

September 29, 2009

Slate has been writing a lot about soda/fat taxes lately and has been making some good points. In Daniel Engber’s latest article, referencing the regressivity of a soda tax, he explores the relationship between obesity and poverty:

If poverty can be fattening, so, too, can fat be impoverishing. Paul Ernsberger, a professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University, lays out this argument in an essay from The Fat Studies Reader, due out in November. Women who are two standard deviations overweight (that’s 64 pounds above normal) make 9 percent less money (PDF), which equates to having 1.5 fewer years of education or three fewer years of work experience.

… The point here is that sickness, poverty, and obesity are spun together in a dense web of reciprocal causality. Anyone who’s fat is more likely to be poor and sick. Anyone who’s poor is more likely to be fat and sick. And anyone who’s sick is more likely to be poor and fat.

Sure, being overweight might reduce productivity, but can it bring you down to poverty levels? I can’t imagine it as common that someone starting in the middle-class drops to the “bottom of the wage scale” because of a weight problem. And if one ever gets that obese, soda taxes aren’t going to help.

Then there’s the possibility that poor people have a greater incentive to behave in unhealthy ways: Since they don’t have as much money to spend on happiness, they “spend” their health instead. (The pleasures of smoking and eating, for example, are easy on the wallet and hard on the body.)

Health is a normal good. It’s expensive to eat healthy—in time and money. And it’s plausible that a major reason the poor eat less well is because they would rather spend their paycheck on things they think are better—education, transportation, rent, etc. Food isn’t always a pleasure focal point in one’s life, and especially with the poor, it can be a necessary burden. But today some food is so cheap that it’s possible to devote significantly less of one’s income towards eating and have enough left over for other pleasures. The trade-off is not eating healthy.

At a McDonalds in downtown D.C. (that I frequent mostly because of the time cost of eating well), some of those in line aren’t there because hamburgers are their favorite food. They are there because the few dollars they scrape together can, amazingly, get them the calories needed to survive and then some. Reducing that choice, through fat taxes, is horribly inhumane.


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