Government-sponsored obesity

Posted: Jan 17, 2003 12:00 AM
Americans are far more at risk from eating too much than from eating too little. In fact, we face an epidemic of obesity. Yet the federal government each year churns out billions of dollars to feed the poor. If that sounds crazy, it is. But it is also a familiar result of a dynamic in American politics. For several centuries -- OK, it only feels like several centuries -- policymakers have engaged in the following ritual: Liberals identify a "need" and urge that the federal government "do something about it." In some cases, like aid to the elderly, widows and orphans, these needs are real. But in most cases, the needs are really just desires, eagerly fulfilled by politicians looking for votes, constituents looking for handouts and industries looking for subsidies. Sometimes a need disappears, or the federal program designed to fill the need has unintended consequences. That is usually when conservatives step forward, clear their throats and tap on the shoulders of government to say, "We need to reconsider." Doug Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, provides an excellent example of the entire process. As a civil-rights worker in the 1960s, he saw true poverty, including hunger in Mississippi. Lots of children, particularly black children, went to bed hungry most nights. The response of the federal government was massive. From Food Stamps to school lunches to the Women, Infants and Children food program, the federal government now spends $31 billion annually feeding the poor. "We're feeding the poor as if they're starving," Besharov explains. But today, the biggest food problem facing Americans is too much, not too little. Among the poor, rates of obesity are 5 to 10 points higher than among the population at large (and 65 percent of all Americans are overweight). This is not to say that hunger is unknown in America. Among the mentally ill and their children, individual cases remain. In New Jersey, two boys were recently found starved. Another was dead. But widespread hunger has not only disappeared from this country, it has been replaced by widespread gluttony. And that gluttony is not without cost. People carrying more than 25 extra pounds are three times more likely to get coronary artery disease, two to six times more likely to develop high blood pressure and three times as likely to get Type II diabetes. Heavier people are also at higher risk for cancer, arthritis, gout and gallbladder disease. The heavier you are, the higher the risk. Yet every year, the United States spends billions encouraging lower income people to eat more. Twenty million Americans collect food stamps, which encourages over-consumption. Children are served 28 million hot lunches at school and 8 million breakfasts every day. It was assumed when these programs were passed that these children would probably not eat much if anything at home, so the school meals are larded with extra calories, giving 58 percent of the day's caloric allowance. But these kids do not go home to empty larders. The WIC program is as sacred as a sacred cow can be in Washington, D.C. Just imagine the vicious slanders that would be hurled at anyone who raised a question about it. The program provides food -- and lots of it -- to pregnant and nursing women and to children ages zero to 4. A monthly package for a toddler includes nine quarts of fruit juice, 36 ounces of cereal, 24 quarts of whole or reduced fat milk, two to two-and-a-half dozen eggs and a pound of peanut butter, dried beans or dried peas. If this were the only food the child lived on for a month, the amounts might be right. But like all of the other federal food programs, WIC does not take into account whether the family also receives food stamps, or other food assistance. Fifty percent of newborns are enrolled in the WIC program. While the program is required to provide counseling to new mothers on voter registration (the Democrats tucked that one into the law), they provide little to no guidance about healthy diets or exercise. And so we continue to push food at those who need a lot less of it. This is generous -- to a fault.