Economic Context

This country has a long history of trying to micromanage the daily activities of people at the wrong end of the economic ladder. Social control is a popular political sport, and food politics are as (if not more) prone to surveillance and bullying as any other flavor of political interference. There is a powerful desire to conflate allegedly bad eating habits with allegedly bad economic habits. Fat people are poor people are uncontrolled, undisciplined people, which is why they are fat and poor. If they had any control, they’d know better than to eat like they do.

Two posts I wrote back in 2009 on the old blog, Red Queen on Food and Do the Math, discussed this condescending and arrogant conflation of obesity and poverty, with the unspoken moral judgment that somehow the presence of fat explains the absence of money, and that if you are fat, then you have simply blown your money on bad food. If I may cite myself, since I still think this, but even more strongly, five years later:

I always get infuriated by the earnest assertion of people with money to spare at all times that, really, these poor people need to learn how to maximize the nutrition in their diets by shopping with cash at weekly farmers markets and getting organic produce that is only $2/bunch for kale…

The obsession of the well-off upper middle class with the eating habits of the barely scraping by poor is both domineering and obscene, a deep desire to force their food choices (too little for too much) onto others who have little choice, and to closely observe, weigh, measure, and manipulate the bodies of subjects unable to avoid this invasion.

Who in this exchange better knows the cost of a pound of flesh? — Red Queen on Food


Obesity is endemic throughout American society. I work with a lot of fat people, myself included, and we’re a pretty well-paid bunch. What we are seeing is the transformation of instances of obesity into pathology when the individual is from a socio-economic class we disdain. Hence the arrogance of Ezra Klein presuming to tell Red Queen that if she is fat (or, rather, that she *is* fat because of her socio-ecnomic markers) it is because she has a psychological problem related to her poor self-image/esteem/deep rooted desire for sweets/ etc. rather than saying that the food industry and low-wage employment creates a situation where people have only a little money to spend on a wide range of poor quality but easily obtained and easily consumed foods.

Pathologizing a condition like obesity privatizes it, making it a condition of personal rectitude that is my own weak-willed fault, and obscures the social structures that make this condition so prevalent, particularly among the poor. — Do the Math

One standard piece of “advice” from well-meaning, well-off food puritans is that poor people should shop at farmers markets to get “nutritious” food. I hope to take a field trip to my local farmers market to check out the options, but this kind of pablum needs to be put into the economic context of life at the less privileged end of the pay scale. The two older posts specifically address life at the poverty line. Today, I’m going to look at economics in my zip code, 92104, and look at what people earning the median for this area have to deal with.

I’m taking my demographics numbers from ZipAtlas so that they are all coming from the same source. Feel free to play along using your own zip code on the site. My zip code covers a diverse section of San Diego, containing at least parts of the emerging hip and significantly gentrified neighborhoods of University Heights and North Park, the gentrifying neighborhoods of Normal Heights and South Park, and the immigrant-heavy so-not gentrified neighborhood of City Heights. These are some of the oldest neighborhoods of San Diego and have gone through several cycles of growth, decay and renewal.

There are approximately 47,700 people living in this zip code. In terms of demographics, it is more male than California and the nation. There are more children under 5 as a percentage of the population than state or nation wide, but that reverses for older children. We don’t have good schools, and parents who can afford to move to better districts (and bigger houses) leave.  We have more adults between 20 and 44 than the state or national average, and we have a smaller late-middle-aged and senior cohort than the state or the nation. So, to put it another way, younger people in their prime earning years live in my zip code.

We are less white, about as black, slightly more Asian, and much more Hispanic than the rest of the nation, but are much more black (12.4% vs. 6.68%) and much less Asian (5.35 % vs. 10.92%) than California on average. This is due to the very large and bustling East African immigrant community centered in City Heights, while the Asian immigrant center is further north. Our school enrollment through grade 12 greatly lags state and national numbers (not as many kids, so less enrollment), but our college enrolled population is 10-15% more. This is due to the close presence of SDSU the next zip code to the east, plus City College being a short bus ride away on multiple routes through the area. Education levels beyond high school meet or exceed state and national averages, except for graduate/professional degrees, which slightly lag both state and national. Employment levels are comparable to state and national averages.

Median household income, with equal numbers above and below, is $31,139. This is significantly less than state ($46,766) or national ($39,349) levels. Individual incomes also lag state and national averages. Households are very slightly smaller than state and national averages. Most people (over 70%) rent rather than own their homes. In general, the zip code is a mix of small, pre-war bungalows and post-war apartment buildings, with a few newer homes and condo/apartment complexes thrown in. Households in rentals tend to have more people than households in owner-occupied units. Most housing units have 4 or fewer rooms. The majority of rental units run between $500 and $1,000/month, with the bulk between $500 and $750, and a median of $621. One-third of renters pay more than 35% of take-home income in rent. Another third pay 20% to 35%.  Housing in this area is old, small and expensive. Finally, most households in this zip code have only 1 car. This makes sense since there are a lot of single renters and because this is one of the few places in San Diego where the bus system kind of works for commuting.

So, now that we have some basic facts, we can start to estimate household budgets right around here. What I want to do is create a monthly cash flow scenario for a median household. We’ll round a few numbers to make it easier. That would be renters, 2.23 people (2 adults and a young child), a median gross annual income of $31,140, for a gross monthly income of $2,595, renting a 3 room apartment (1 BR, 1 BA) for the median $620/month, which is about 24% of their gross income. We’ll presume wage earners are paid on the 15th and the last day of the month. We will also presume they have one reasonably reliable vehicle plus one monthly bus pass for transportation.

Here are a few other assumptions:

  • I estimate a 12% withholding on their paychecks, mostly Social Security and Medicare.
  • I gave this family of three a weekly food budget of $110 based on the USDA’s “Thrifty Plan” (PDF), which is what SNAP recipients are expected to spend each week. If they move up to the “Low Cost Plan,” the cost would be $144/week. These costs are current as of April 2014.
  • I assume both parents are working and they need childcare for a toddler 5 days per week. I used this chart from the YMCA that estimates weekly childcare costs in California by zip code. The lowest toddler cost in this zip code is $158/week. If only one parent is working and the other is staying home to provide care, this expense could be avoided, but their household income would be less.
  • I assume that they have subsidized health care, and have selected the lowest cost “Silver” plan available for this zip code for a family of three with one child. The cost was estimated from the Covered California web site.
  • The monthly bus pass is the current cost for San Diego Metropolitan Transit.
  • For convenience, I roll up monthly household costs for things like diapers, clothes, soap, etc., into a single line item. In truth, this will be spread across the month. I am also making a wild ass guess about baby costs, like diapers. Someone correct me in comments if I’m really off.
  • I assume they receive the 20% utilities discount from SDG&E for gas & electric, that their water is not individually metered, but is paid for through the rent, and that they each have a cell phone, though not smart phones and no land line phone. I presume they don’t have cable, which in this neighborhood is Cox.

This is what we get. To make it a little less ghastly, we’ll start on the 31st of last month so they’ve just been paid:

Item Credit Debit Balance
Paycheck #1 – 31st of previous month $1,298.00 $0.00 $1,298.00
Payroll taxes – 12% $0.00 $155.76 $1,142.24
Rent $0.00 $620.00 $522.24
Childcare – Week 1 $0.00 $158.00 $364.24
Groceries – Week 1 $0.00 $110.00 $254.24
Utilities – power, gas, phone $0.00 $100.00 $154.24
Auto – gas, insurance, maintenance $0.00 $100.00 $54.24
Childcare – Week 2 $0.00 $158.00 -$103.76
Groceries – Week 2 $0.00 $110.00 -$213.76
Paycheck #2 – 15th of current month $1,298.00 $0.00 $1,084.24
Payroll taxes – 12% $0.00 $155.76 $928.48
Household – clothes, diapers, TP, soap $0.00 $200.00 $728.48
Childcare – Week 3 $0.00 $158.00 $570.48
Groceries – Week 3 $0.00 $110.00 $460.48
Auto – gas, insurance, maintenance $0.00 $100.00 $360.48
Health Insurance $0.00 $49.00 $311.48
Childcare, week 4 $0.00 $158.00 $153.48
Groceries – Week 4 $0.00 $110.00 $43.48
Monthly Bus Pass $0.00 $72.00 -$28.52

Hmm. They do not have positive cash flow. These are extremely conservative expenses, yet the median income for this zip code can’t cover basic expenses. I don’t have any entertainment in here, for example. There’s nothing for furniture. I presume they do not eat out and do not drink alcohol. They don’t have health club memberships.

What are they going to cut back on? Where can they cut back?

Payroll taxes are not going to budge. The transportation expenses are pretty much fixed since that’s how they get to work. Rent is the biggest expense where moving might really bring costs down, but knowing the area like I do, that $620 apartment is already a tiny little shit-hole of a place and not in a good part of the neighborhood.  They might try finding childcare alternatives. They might downgrade their insurance to the $2/month “Bronze” plan and pray no one has to see the doctor.

And they might really economize on food.

This is a median household in my zip code. This is not a household in poverty, but it is a working class home with two young parents holding low income jobs and trying to make ends meet. This is the context in which they make food choices.

Could you keep buying your “healthy” food under these conditions? If you say “yes,” you’ll need to show your math.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Economics
2 comments on “Economic Context
  1. quixote says:

    I I read somewhere that the feds’ concept of an appropriate monthly food budget — an amount nobody has ever managed to actually live on — was based on numbers found in the 1960s and based on a stay-at-home housewife with excellent shopping skills and the time to find all the specials, thorough knowledge of nutrition and the ability to come up with healthy menus of the cheapest food and very good cooking skills such that she could make that cheap nutritious food interesting to eat.

    I am not making this up. That is apparently the basis of those laughably low sums SNAP considers enough to live on. And I suspect if you did have a professional Home Ec Professional + Cordon Bleu Chef you probably could do it. I’d be curious to know how many people there are in the country who combine all the necessary skills, and then how many of those are on food stamps. Zero?


    • anglachelg says:

      Hi quixote,

      If you look at my post “May Grocery Costs,” our May grocery expenditures are just under the “Thrifty” (SNAP) amount for a month ($315.55 vs. $386.60) – but it doesn’t include the cost of the Spousal Unit’s lunches, which are all purchased at fast food joints, nor is there any alcohol. Add those in and we’re up over $600 for the month. So, on the one hand, it is *possible* to have grocery costs of under $100/week for a two-person household, but it’s going to be pretty bare bones.

      The bigger challenge, though, is how much work it takes to convert those raw groceries into appetizing meals, as you point out. I was raised by one of those 60s housewives who was super smart, an aggressive bargain shopper, and who was bored out of her over-educated skull with being a stay-at-home mother. The shopping was a logic game to her, and I learned the rules. It also helps if you weren’t brought up with a terribly discerning palate.

      The cooking part of it, however, was something I had to learn for myself. It is hard to turn raw food into something tasty, not so much because cooking is hard (see my roasted potatoes recipe) as knowing what to do with this or that raw ingredient. What the hell do you do with kohlrabi, for example? How do you make carrots tender? I have two sausages, a bunch of kale and a few bits of cheese – what do I do with it to make it yummy? Packaged food rips down the barrier between you and sophisticated dishes, or even simple ones. How *does* one make marinara sauce? If you have a clue what to do, do you have a kitchen equipped to do that cooking?

      And so forth.

      I also somewhat cynically note that people who burble on about “healthy” eating and how “cheap” it is generally have a really narrow and unappetizing list of dishes that they prepare, usually heavy on the brown rice and steamed vegetables. They also don’t tend to have very discerning palates, and think that healthy food can’t taste good. The food blogs are filled to the gills with food that is simply ghastly “virtuous” facsimiles of food. I am a good enough cook that I know what the taste and texture of these dishes will be, and I just shake my head in disgust. Likewise, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the “foodies” who are always indulging in food that goes to excess in some way (exotic ingredients, weird cooking methods, lavish portions, etc.) don’t seem to get that fat isn’t always flavor; sometimes it’s just congealed grease on the plate and a sick sensation in your gut.

      Anyway, the cheap-ass puritanism in combination with the mean-spirited moralism that gets applied to the poor’s eating habits is one of the more hateful things our society does to people.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Calendar of Posts
June 2014
« May   Jul »
%d bloggers like this: