The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

McArdle on Obesity Among the Poor

Megan McArdle takes this quote from a NYT article:

It's like diffusion of innovation: whenever innovation comes along, the well-to-do are much quicker at adopting it. On the lower end, various disadvantages have piled onto the poor. Diet has gotten worse. There's a lot more work stress. People have less time, if they're poor, to devote to health maintenance behaviors when they are juggling two jobs. Mortality rates even among the poor are coming down, but the rate is not anywhere near as fast as for the well-to-do. So the gap has increased.

and tears it apart:

There's a lot wrong with this. some of this isn't true--in America, the rich work longer hours than the poor, and a postal worker is less likely to have a stressful job than an investment banker. And note the use of the passive voice: "Diet has gotten worse". It's like how in Spanish, no one ever breaks everything; everyone says "se rompio. Diets have gotten worse because poor people are eating crappy food, not because the diet fairy left them with the pork rinds rich people didn't want.

[Doesn't the poor quality of inner-city markets make good food hard to get?-ed. I shop at a market in a housing project, and while it's not exactly Wegmans, I manage to put together a balanced diet on a budget so tight the nickels squeak. Plus, as the man says, "diets have gotten worse", but supermarkets, even in poor areas are only getting better. People are eating fattier, more sugary diets because as food has gotten cheaper, they have chosen to consume more of the things that aren't good for us.]

This is nitpicking, but that quote is absolutely typical of the way obesity among the poor is presented in the media: low-income people are framed as hapless victims rather than agents. This is bad for two reasons. First, it distorts people's beliefs about what sorts of policy interventions are likely to succeed--if you believe the average news article, it would be easy to decide that the best way to lick obesity would be to air-lifting rhubarb and radishes into East New York, and pay doctors to harangue people. Whereas if you spend some time with actual people in, say, assisted housing, you'll find that they, like everyone else know

a) what makes you fat
b) that being fat is unhealthy
c) that you can easily buy fresh fruit if you cut out the slurpees

They're not stupid, and they're not particularly ignorant, though they're probably not as up on the ins-and-outs of saturated fats and Omega-3's as your average food-obsessed young professional. They are choosing to eat the way they do.

The whole post is quite good.


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