Mrs. Obama and Fat Government

Posted: May 14, 2010 12:01 AM
  Mrs. Obama and Fat Government

"The closest thing to immortality on this Earth," Ronald Reagan once said, "is a federal government program." We still have a Rural Electrification Administration for Heaven's sake (though it's been renamed) -- FDR's program to bring electrical power to rural areas.

No problem that the federal government undertakes to tackle can ever be recognized as solved because to do so would mean the dissolution of an agency. And if the federal program creates new problems, well, those are then excuses for new agencies.

Consider the problem of obesity. Under the leadership of the first lady, the Obama administration has unveiled a series of proposals to combat obesity in children. Among the 70 recommendations: new federal subsidies for fruits and vegetables; taxes on sodas, candy, and junk food; and mandates on federally funded and private health programs to cover obesity-related problems.

Mrs. Obama and her crack team of federal do-gooders did not consider that the federal government is also in the business of feeding a significant portion of the population.

The scale of federal nutrition programs is actually quite staggering. One in eight adult Americans now receives food stamps, along with 25 percent of children. More than half of all American infants are on the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition program. Sixty-two percent of American schoolchildren who eat school lunches are getting free or reduced-price meals.

How in the world did programs intended to keep the neediest Americans from malnutrition end up feeding -- even overfeeding -- such a huge percentage of the population?

The WIC program is instructive. It was enacted in 1972 to provide food, nutrition counseling, and referrals to health and other social services for needy pregnant and nursing women and their children up to age 5. Who can be opposed to that? In 1977, as Douglas Besharov of the University of Maryland documents in a study of the program, WIC covered about 4 percent of women and children and 6 percent of infants. By 2006, it had stretched to include 30 percent of pregnant women, 51 percent of infants, and 25 percent of young children.

Receiving benefits from one federal nutrition program does not affect eligibility for others. So nothing prevents someone who gets WIC from also getting food stamps and free or discounted school lunches and breakfasts.

The WIC program's growth -- to the point where it has become obese itself -- was enabled by cowardice and neglect. Because the idea of providing nourishing food and nutrition counseling to pregnant women and infants is so appealing (or, to take the more cynical view, because politicians feared being accused of taking food from infants and mothers), the program received steadily increasing funding and little oversight from members of Congress. The Food and Nutrition Service (the largest part of the Agriculture Department), which administers the program, is staffed by earnest bureaucrats enthusiastic about their program. Eligibility standards have accordingly been relaxed over time to the point where, in 2004, about 6 percent of WIC infants lived in families with annual incomes above 300 percent of poverty (for a family of three, about $52,808). In 2006, only 48 percent of WIC families had income at or below the poverty line.

A funny thing happened on the way to preventing hunger among America's poor -- the nation got fat. And the populations most prone to obesity are the poorest. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 35 percent of low-income 3-year-olds were overweight -- double the rate of the rest of the population. The prevalence of obesity among low-income women is 50 percent higher than among wealthier women, and the poor are disproportionately overweight at all ages and in both sexes.

Nutrition programs haven't been proved to cause obesity. But the obesity epidemic among the poor suggests that actual starvation is not the main challenge now. Advocates for more spending, like the Food Research and Action Center are puzzling it out: "A number of researchers have theorized about potential mechanisms for the association between food insecurity and obesity, including an association between food insecurity and binge-like eating ..." The obesity epidemic is not a reason to cut back on food programs, they conclude, but rather a call to spend even more.

To the billions we already spend on shoveling food at those who need to reduce their intake, we will now spend God only knows how much more encouraging them to exercise and "make healthy food choices." And the deficit gets more obese every day.

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