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:
|Paycheck #1 – 31st of previous month||$1,298.00||$0.00||$1,298.00|
|Payroll taxes – 12%||$0.00||$155.76||$1,142.24|
|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|
|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.