Against the backdrop of the foolish pearl clutching that has greeted the CBO report that shows Obamacare will give people the freedom to choose to work less, I stumbled across a piece by Reihan Salam on Representatives Nikki Tsongas (D-MA) and Tom Petri’s (R-WI) push for a commission to improve co-coordination between federal and state anti-poverty programs. Petri is particularly interested in dealing with the disincentives to work that are built into many programs, sometimes in the aggregate.
For instance, consider the scenario of a single mother with two children making $17,000 a year living in Wisconsin in 2009 who claims all available deductions and participated in all eligible benefit programs. If this single mother were to work extra hours or receive a raise so that her earnings increase to $21,000, she would only see $540 of that $4,000 in new earnings—she would have lost $3,460 in benefits. That amounts to almost an 88 percent effective tax rate, leaving the hard-working parent and her children little to show for the extra effort. Even more shocking is that if this mother received a raise or worked more to raise her earnings another $1,000 to $22,000, she would actually have less in disposable income than she had when earning $21,000.
How can this be?
It all comes back to benefit phaseout schedules. For instance, SNAP benefits for a single mother in some states gradually diminish as income rise and eventually stop when earnings reach $23,000 annually, leading to over 100 percent in effective taxation at some point—meaning that you lose more than you bring in.
Reihan points to Oren Cass’ Flex Fund idea as one way of dealing with the issue. There is a lot for liberals and conservatives to like in Cass’ ideas. The biggest obstacle the idea faces is that it is a broad omnibus reform. Those are really, really hard to do. I’d like to suggest a small bore solution to a program that I’ve thought a lot about and have some experience with.
I’m going to lay the case for a tiered phase out of SNAP benefits as participants income rises. The three tiers would be the current basket of goods covered by SNAP, the WIC basket of goods or perhaps the WIC basket and finally fresh produce as covered in the new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program. But first, let’s look at the case for whitelisting SNAP benefits in the first place.
I’ve long thought that the basket of goods covered by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) should whitelisted. That is, SNAP should pay for foods that provide sustenance. It should not pay for things like soda and cookies. Another reform would be to forgo the whitelist for recipients but require a mandatory basket of goods for participating retailers must carry and keep in inventory. Using the already existing WIC package would be a simple way to do this. Another popular idea would be to simply exclude sugary beverages.
Whitelisting SNAP would accomplish a number of important things:
- It would end a large indirect federal subsidy to junk food manufacturers
- It would increase the indirect federal subsidy to non-junk food producers
- It would improve the eating habits of a substantial number of Americans by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption that is too low and decreasing sugar consumption that far to high. There is a reasonable expectation that this would lower medical costs. Those are medical costs which are most likely being picked up by the taxpayer.
- It would serve as a strong public health message that diet matters and that junk food is not just empty calories
- It would nearly end the problem of food deserts over night. If corner stores needed to carrying a certain basket of goods to certify for SNAP, store in low income neighborhoods would start stocking fresh produce and whole grain bread and cereal over night. Problem solved. I’ve worked with corner stores to achieve WIC status. They respond to incentives and WIC participation changes their product mix for the better.
- It would insulate SNAP politically. A program that only pays for nutritious food is much harder to attack politically and would be less vulnerable to budget cuts.
The idea faces a few obstacles. First, anti-hunger groups won’t lobby for a change like this. They argue that it is demeaning to recipients that they couldn’t shop like everyone else.That it is stigmatizing to have pay for some items with their EBT card and for other by other means. They point out that SNAP participants eat about as well as everyone else. They argue that cheaper foods provide cheaper calories.
These arguments are easily dealt with.
There are lots of everyday necessities that you can’t pay for with your EBT card: aspirin, dish soap, tooth paste, sandwich bags. Shifting soda and potato chips into that category doesn’t make the check out any more demeaning than buying tuna and cold medicine in the same transaction. I’ve been on SNAP and I found room for a little ice cream here and there, but I would have traded that in a second for dish soap, tooth paste or double coupons for fresh produce. SNAP is by nature paternalistic. If we want a less paternalistic program, we would do a straight cash transfer. Given our cognitive biases against budgeting and the fact that a lot of SNAP spending is intended for kids, compartmentalizing an in kind transfer for food makes more sense. Now with the federal government on the hook for a lot more low income health care spending, it makes even more sense to exclude junk food. In fact, given what we’ve learned about behavioral psychology, done right, a SNAP whitelist could have a significant positive effect on participant’s food choices. That’s a topic for another day. Read More…
1. SHUTDOWN LEAVES PROGRAM FEEDING WOMEN AND INFANTS IN THE LURCH
Eliza Barclay and Allison Aubrey | NPR
Among those affected by the chaos of the government shutdown are 9 million low-income women and children who may be worrying where next week’s meal is going to come from.
They rely on the government for food assistance through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC.
And according to Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the , some of the state programs that serve these women and children may run out of money by next week, while others may have enough funds to offer the food benefits through the end of the month. But across the country, he says, anxiety is rising as both program administrators and participants wonder how long they’ll be in limbo.
2. WHERE DO HUNGER AND COGNITION INTERSECT
Zarja Muršič | The Scicurious Brain | Scientific American
Just how important is leptin? Studies of genetically modified strains of mice with deficiency in production of leptin, and so without the ability to reduce food intake, are prone to obesity and diabetes (8). These mice have a genetic defect in fat cells, which prevents them from secreting leptin, and without leptin, they don’t have the signal to stop, so they keep eating, and get very obese.
So, maybe you are halfway through your omelet, or that big bowl of oatmeal, and your body begins to produce leptin, signaling you have had enough. This may be the whole story of your Sunday breakfast, but the leptin has not yet finished its work. Maybe you didn’t make that omelet yourself, but bought it at a little breakfast place down the road. If you remember where that breakfast place is, you might be able to go back. And leptin plays a role here as well. Our bodies are quite efficient and will turn one hormone to many uses. In case of leptin – if the hormone can do one thing, it can be adapted to do another as well, and in this case, leptin plays a role in cognition.
3. WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF CHIPOTLE’S NEW AD?
Paul Raeburn | MIT Tracker
The root of much of the criticism, it seems to me, is that people are shocked, shocked that Chipotle would advocate sustainable farming, family farms, and greenmarkets when it is nothing more than a big corporation selling burritos by any means necessary!
If Chipotle is sincere in trying to use its leverage to promote better agricultural practices, there is no greenwashing here; it is pursuing the course promoted in the video. If it is lying about that, then it is not only guilty of deception, but possibly crimes.
But let’s not be shocked by Chipotle’s eagerness to sell its burritos. It’s a public corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and it’s trading around 419 as I write this, close to its 52-week high. It has a market cap of almost $13 billion and a P/E of just over 44.
If Chipotle is pushing sustainable agriculture over less desirable practices, let’s take it. Would we feel warmer about the burrito-industrial complex if Chipotle promoted ruthless slaughter?
4. POSTSCRIPT: MARCELLA HAZAN CHANGED MY LIFE
David Sipress | The New Yorker
On Sunday, the great Italian chef and cookbook author Marcella Hazan died, at the age of eighty-nine. Marcella changed my life. Twenty years ago, my wife and I went to Italy for our honeymoon and I discovered the wonders of Italian food. I returned from the trip determined that, for the rest of my life, I would eat only the way I had during those three weeks of culinary bliss. There was one huge problem—I was a terrible cook. The little cooking I did usually involved frying in Wesson oil and saucing with Paul Newman salad dressing. Fresh ingredients were not in the picture; having grown up in New York in the fifties, I had pretty much accepted my mother’s theory that any food item not wrapped in plastic was probably covered with germs.
What I needed was a teacher. And I found mine in Marcella’s “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” All I had to do was follow her instructions to the letter, and success was pretty much guaranteed. If you’ve ever seen Marcella on television, you know that she was a short, compact lady, a tough biscotti with a raspy voice who didn’t suffer fools gladly and had a surprising preference for Jack Daniels over a glass of wine. But in her books her voice is always warm and encouraging. This, and the fact that her recipes are consistently clear and straightforward, enabled me to overcome a lifetime of insecurity in the kitchen. She just made it all seem so easy.
5. COFFEE EXPERIMENTS
Seth Brown | Dr. Bunsen
For analyzing beer and whisky flavor preferences, I turned to several comprehensive datasets. For coffee, I couldn’t find an equivalent resource, so I generated my own data. My experimental design was simple.3 I’d give guests two cups of coffee prepared in exactly the same way except for one important difference. I’d then ask guests to choose their favorite of the two cups without them knowing which cup was which. Then, I’d record the results.
To avoid Groupthink, I gave one of the two cups, blinded and at random to each subject. I also wouldn’t inform the subjects what the independent variable was until after the experiment was completed. These steps helped avoid introducing bias into the experiment which may have distorted the results.
In total, 3 rounds of randomized experiments were conducted. Two of the three rounds were actual experiments, while the other round served as a control. As a control, house guests were given two cups of the exact same coffee and asked to choose their favorite. The control served as a baseline to calibrate the experiment. In all control experiments, subjects’ preferences between the two cups of coffee were consistent with a random coin flip.
6. LET’S RETIRE THESE DAMAGING NUTRITION MYTHS, PLEASE
Andy Bellati | Huffington Post
1) “There is no such thing as junk food/there are no bad foods.”
In very specific contexts (i.e., eating disorder recovery), I understand where this stems from — strip away judgmental labels on food and bring it to its most basic function: nourishment. However, I’m increasingly seeing this message doled out by mainstream nutrition experts as a “takeaway” for the general public. . .
To my ears, “Everything in moderation!” is the equivalent of 600 fingernails on a chalkboard, plus the never-ending drip of a leaky faucet. “Moderation” is a meaningless term. Ask 20 different people what it means and you’ll get 20 different responses.
“But that’s the beauty of it — each person can define it themselves!” some say. That doesn’t sound like beauty to me. It sounds like chaos.
“Everything in moderation,” is another way of unnecessarily and inaccurately equalizing all foods. It operates on the inane and utterly insane notion that peaches, Pop-Tarts, muffins, soda, lentils and tomatoes should all be approached the same way. . .
3) “Healthy eater = red flag.”
When I was in school, I recall many of my nutrition textbooks pointing out that vegetarians, vegans and “those who avoid certain food groups” must be warned that if they do not plan their diets adequately, all sorts of nutritional ills could befall them. Meanwhile, the average American on the omnivorous “Standard American Diet” falls short of the recommended intake of fiber and several minerals, including magnesium. Of course, this is not because omnivorous diets are inherently unhealthy, but because the majority of Americans eat highly processed foods with little nutritional value. . .
4) “You have to be realistic.”
This is often brought up by some nutrition professionals to justify their recommendations about making healthful choices at fast-food restaurants (“Just get the small size”). I’ll admit it — I used to think this way when I first started studying nutrition, before I counseled clients. I now see that the most satisfied individuals I have worked with are those who stepped outside their comfort zone. They aren’t interested in learning how they can still go to the drive-through three times a week and making “lower-calorie choices.” They want to truly learn about healthful eating. . .