WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- The U.S. government's food aid programs for low-income people are contributing to the high obesity rates of America's poor, according to a recent report from a Washington think thank.
"Today, the central nutritional problem facing the poor -- indeed, all Americans -- is not too little food, but too much of the wrong food," writes Douglas Besharov in his paper, "We're Feeding the Poor as if They're Starving."
The paper was published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"But despite a striking increase in obesity among the needy, federal feeding programs still operate under their nearly half-century-old objective of increasing food consumption," he writes.
Other experts on federal food programs for the poor say that although Besharov's thesis has received some press attention lately, his analysis is flawed and not supported by data.
In his paper, Besharov, director of AEI's social and individual responsibility project, notes that that the U.S. government now spends billions annually on its three major programs to help feed the poor: $18 billion on food stamps; $8 billion on school breakfasts and lunches; and $5 billion on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, which provides food directly to mothers and children.
He says these programs are driven not by an emphasis on healthy eating habits that could help stymie the costly problem of obesity, but by outdated policies that contribute to obesity. Such policies ignore the fact that Americans are much more likely today to be at risk from health problems related to overeating and obesity than those that arise from lack of food.
"We have research, which I describe in the article, that shows that food stamps increase food consumption by as much as 10 to 20 percent, depending upon what research study it is," Besharov told United Press International.
When asked to explain how increased consumption, a goal of the food stamp program, negatively affects recipients or contributes to increased obesity, Besharov, who appeared reluctant to comment on his report, said only, "of course it is negative," and said the impact of is explained in his analysis.
In his article, Besharov says that although around 65 percent of Americans are overweight, with more than half of them obese, the best estimates place the rate of obesity among the poor at 5 to 10 percent higher.
He writes that despite this high rate of obesity among the poor, low-income families have access to more free or low-cost food than ever before through federal food programs. They are even allowed to use all three programs at the same time while receiving welfare assistance.
Phyllis Busansky, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and an expert in welfare policy, said that Besharov's criticisms of federal food programs are on the mark in many ways.
"I think he is willing to take a very hard look at some of the things we have been doing for a while, and some of those things are going down the wrong path," said Busansky. "Obesity is one of the major problems in this country. It costs us millions upon millions of dollars (in healthcare and other costs)."
Critics of Besharov's thesis said that there is little or no proof linking obesity and government food programs.
Robert Greenstein, founder and executive director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank dedicated to exploring how fiscal policy affects low-income people, said that Besharov's arguments are not realistic.
"I think he tossed together some arguments on food stamps and the presence of obesity and concluded on the basis of little or no evidence that food stamps are contributing to obesity," said Greenstein, who ran the food stamp program during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
"In fact, there is virtually no research that establishes a connection between the two, and there is some recent research that has looked specifically at the question of whether food stamps cause obesity and found that (they do) not," he said.
Besharov points out in his report that under the food stamp program, the largest of the federal efforts, a household of four can receive a benefit of up to $465.
Other analysts said that Besharov's arguments misinterpret the reality of the food stamp program. Just because $465 in monthly assistance is possible doesn't mean that is what a family would receive, or that even at the highest level the program provides the poor with too much food.
The value of the food stamp benefit is based upon a host of factors including family size and income, experts in the program at the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service told UPI.
According to USDA data, the average benefit per person in 2001 was just under $76.
Anne Kim, director of the work, family and community project at the centrist-liberal Progressive Policy Institute, said that the threshold amount does not represent the reality of the program's impact on working families. (PPI is affiliated with the Democratic leadership council)
"That (75 dollars per person per month) is not very much money if you are talking about a family that has one income," said Kim.
Besharov, however, compares the program's ticket-based design -- in which recipients receive vouchers on a credit card that can be used only to buy food -- to tickets purchased for rides at an amusement park. He says the general tendency for most people is to buy more tickets than they need, which leads them to go on more rides than they planned in order to avoid wasting the extra tickets.
In the case of the food stamp program, he says the phenomenon results in over-consumption because recipients purchase food they would not otherwise buy. Besharov recommends fixing the problem by switching the program to a direct cash payment system.
Citing USDA studies, he says that a so-called "cash out" of the program would help address over-consumption while still retaining the high levels of daily nutritional intake recommended by the federal government.
Kim, however, who is an advocate of reforming the program to make it more efficient to better serve the needs of working families, says, that the basic benefits it provides are still badly needed by America's poor.
She has noted in her own writings that only about 37 percent of all households below the poverty line, and about one-third of female-headed household with children, were categorized by the USDA in 2000 as "food insecure" (unable to afford or unsure about their ability to afford) the basic food needs of their families.
Kim also said that a major factor influencing high rates of obesity among the poor is that it is much cheaper to purchase unhealthy food than items like fresh fruit and vegetables. Government food programs do not address this.
Greenstein, Kim and other analysts also said that Besharov's arguments about over consumption in relation to food stamps are off the mark.
In a paper published last year, Diane Whitmore, an economist doing post-doctorate work at the University of California at Berkeley, examined two food stamp cash-out experiments conducted in Alabama and California. She found that between 70 and 80 percent of all food stamp recipients had to spend more on food than their food stamps are worth.
"If it costs $150 to feed a family and they get $100 worth of food stamps, his (Besharov's) argument that you are forced to over consume doesn't make any sense," said Whitmore, adding that the program is actually designed to supplement food spending.
In examining the cash-out experiments, she also found that this basic purchasing pattern remained relatively stable among those who were given no-strings-attached cash payments that could be used for other purchases.
Among the 20 percent to 30 percent of cash recipients who spent less than their total benefit amount on food, Whitmore found that their caloric intake was reduced on average by about only 3 percent. Even if there were a sound link between obesity and the food stamp program, she said, cashing out food stamps would have little impact on most beneficiaries.
Whitmore also noted that her research shows that the percentage of people who fail to meet their daily nutritional requirements rises quite a bit among the 20 percent to 30 percent of cash recipients who did change their spending patterns.
"I think this is some evidence that people who change their behaviors would get worse nutrition, and not better, as he suggests," she said.
Robert Lerman, director of the Labor and Social Policy Center at the liberal Urban Institute, said that although Besharov presents an interesting case, he fails to establish a sound connection between federal food programs and obesity in the poor.
Nevertheless, he said that it is worth pursuing Besharov's assertion that better dietary habits among the poor might be achieved through efforts to provide better nutritional counseling.
"It is not obvious to me that it would work. But on the other hand, if it were to work it could have a pretty good long term payoff because we know the health costs (of obesity)," he said. "From a government cost-benefit perspective, the relief to long-term health outlays might make it worthwhile."