America's overweight poor

Posted: Jan 21, 2003 12:00 AM
The problem with America's poor kids is that they're too fat. Few policy-makers are willing to say this rather obvious truth, which is why America's nutritional programs are caught in a 1930s time warp that amplifies the chief health problem facing poor children -- namely, that they're overweight. Liberal advocacy groups, stuck in a gruesome nostalgia for a bygone era of deprivation, still talk of hunger as if it stalks every poor household in the country. They maintain that there are 13.6 million children hungry or at risk of hunger in America, one of the great bogus statistics of our age. As poverty expert Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation explains, malnutrition, understood as a significant dietary deficiency, essentially doesn't exist in America except in small pockets of the population with other problems, e.g. drug addicts or anorexics. Hunger, defined as going without a meal at least once in the past month, is also extremely rare, according to the Department of Agriculture, affecting roughly one-half of 1 percent of American children. Advocacy groups get their higher number by resorting to a category in Agriculture Department surveys measuring "food insecurity without hunger," meaning the worry that it might be hard to find a meal. This statistic tries to capture a psychological state rather than anything real, and contradicts the harder (or at least pudgier) evidence on the ground. According to Rector, the average poor child is, in fact, supernourished. On average, he consumes twice the daily recommended allowance of protein. By age 18, he will be an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the average teenager in 1950. This is all to the good, except that this positive trend has been supersized. Douglas J. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute notes that 65 percent of Americans are overweight, and the poor are even more so, by an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent. Adolescents from poor households, Besharov reports, are twice as likely to be overweight. This reflects a worldwide trend. In poor countries, it's the rich who tend to be disproportionately overweight, while in advanced, rich countries it's the opposite, since it takes so much time and effort not to be overweight (rich urbanites, for instance, have the fancy gym memberships). Excess weight is, of course, associated with the increased incidence of all sorts of health disorders, from coronary disease to type 2 diabetes. It's important, therefore, to get kids on the right nutritional path. "The simple fact is that more people die in the United States of too much food than too little," said Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in 1998, "and the habits that lead to this epidemic become ingrained at an early age." The federal government helps ingrain them, as Besharov argues. Food stamps can't be used for anything other than food, forcing some recipients to buy more than they need. School breakfast and lunch programs are stacked with calories on the assumption that kids will go hungry the rest of the day. The Women, Infants and Children food-support program -- roughly half of all newborns are enrolled -- also favors high-calorie, high-cholesterol food. Besharov suggests substituting cash for food stamps, slimming down school meals and focusing the WIC program more on fruits and vegetables and on sound nutritional counseling. Doing any of this, however, will require prevailing over the howls of liberal advocacy groups, which love to feel as if they are "crusading against hunger" in a callous country two steps away from the starvation of Zimbabwe. Such groups are increasingly disconnected from the real problems of the urban poor. They talk about hunger and housing, which are conveniently susceptible to big-government solutions (more food programs! low-income housing!). The real problems of the poor tend to be crime, failing schools, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases and poor eating habits. It's time for liberals to upgrade their image of America. We live in such a splendidly abundant nation that even the poor are overweight. Get over it.