Is healthy food a luxury for low-income households in the United States?

It seems quite a few of the poor, when they get some extra money, want to keep on buying refined sugar.  Or in other words, it takes quite a bit of income (or is it education?) to “elevate taste.”  Here is the job market paper by Olga Kozlova of Duke University:

This paper explores how the low-income households change the quality of their food basket when they experience a budget increase. I use the variation in the monthly household budget coming from the exogenous variation in the winter temperature that directly affects the heating bills. I show that in response to a higher budget available the expenditure share on healthy food does not increase. I find that households increase the share of expenditure on fruits, but they purchase fruit products with a higher amount of sugar. My findings suggest that there are important trade-offs in policies that subsidize food expenditure because these policies allow low-income households to purchase more of the healthy as well as the unhealthy food products.

Also on the job market, from Northwestern, here is Mara P. Squicciarini, whose job market paper argues that Catholic education held back economic growth in 19th century France.  She also co-edited a book The Economics of Chocolate.


Or maybe it's a biological thing (low IQ & high time preference), and the government actively subsidizes unhealthy food.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for the likes of Tyler Cowen to explain how money & college turn an impatient moron into a patient sage.

Yes.. low IQ, time preference, culture, terrible public education for the poor, and multitudes of irrational government anti-poverty policies.

Healthy food is readily available (not a non-affordable luxury) to all of America's "poor".
Anyone can eat well in America at relatively very low cost, but it requires some basic knowledge of smart food buying and the motivation/discipline to apply that simple knowledge.

America's poor are in no way "poor" by world standards. America has the fattest poor people in the world. The entire mainstream view of poverty/hunger/nutrition in the U.S. is totally incorrect.

Well if you want to eat healthy and enjoy it then some cooking skill is required

I've spent the last hour practicing my roux. I suck. Always tastes like flour no longer how long I cook it. :(

Then you must not be allowed into the inner city. You can wreak serious damage on the skills of budding roux makers, at a critical time. is not required for basic healthy eating. Most people can boil water.
Think nutrition, not an uppity dining experience.

Very simple heating in simple modes and utensils is all that is needed.
Simple spices/sauces are very easy and cheap, but optional.

Not really oranges, carrots and cabbage and other foods do not need cooking at all.

'America has the fattest poor people in the world.'

Mexicans are likely to disagree with that, after they stop laughing, but really, when has empirical data ever played a role at this web site? See for example.

He may be wrong in his assertion, but your link did not seem to be something that refutes it.

Yet, these messages are rarely or never communicated to the people who could benefit from them.

Perhaps something or other about the sugar, corn syrup, dairy and other industries having more influence than the lentils and chick peas industry might be related to the generally suboptimal quality of information disseminated to these people.

Should we blame the poor when the government gives them bad (if any) information and encourages them to buy far more expensive food than required to fill their nutritional needs? As for eating foods full of sugar, fat and salt, some research indicates that those who grow up in poverty are more likely to emphasize those quick and easy calories in their preferences (whether psychological or genetic, it may contribute to people prioritizing quicker gains when quicker gains are more important - this may mess with long-term planning).

They do not teach practical things like that in schools because it does not help with the PISA tests and so would be bad for our national self image. The signaling function of schooling is squeezing out the education function.

Perhaps we should schooling systems by how well the graduates live.

The old explanation for the transformation of annoying ignorant undisciplined children into merely annoying semi adults is perhaps unsurpassed: add "time" to "adversity" and mix.*

* Also required: a dollop of hoping for the best

When I go to the grocery store and buy “healthy food”, (depending on the season, fresh, canned, frozen,) meat, vegetables, and fruit that I spend less. Its when I buy the prepared food and chips/dips/soda etc that my bill is higher. It also makes my waistband expand when I make the second choice.

So poverty is not making people buy junk food, nor making them fat.

One reason not to transfer more money to the poor is that many of them do not have the good judgement to use it well. Having good judgement is correlated with income.

This leads some people to be very interested in ensuring that financial literacy and basic planning skills are taught to youth, and are easily available for adults who missed out on that.

Lay off the poor. A young friend of mine has had to reject food in "classy" US restaurants for being inedibly sweet. You have a national problem there.

1. You, a denizen of ground zero for tooth decay, are complaining about the consumption of sweets in this country?

2. One doesn't get fat on British cooking because it's all swill.

Your quips about the U.K. might have killed it in 1972 but they are rather stale and out of date today.

Marmite sells well in Britain. And the toast is still served on racks, stone cold.

re 1: (shortened link to Gapminder)

re 2: (not per capita)

I am pretty sure I was Ricardo before either of you.

There are 4 of us?

Restaurant meals are not generally known for their healthiness

Definitely not, but restaurants vary widely in quality here. I mean, where is this guy going, Applebee's? It's not exactly a Michelin-star restaurant, you know.

Because I have the dubious benefit of a certain age (late 40s) , I will call this "experience" and proclaim (entirely anecdotally) that I have noted the increase in sugars, fructose glucose etc in many things in this country, from bread to catsup to yoghurt.

When you listen to people, what is the ideal food? What do they aspire too? Most of time people will mention a recognizable food chain or already made fast food. Almost no one mentions having time to buy ingredients, go home, drink some beer/wine while cooking and then enjoy your meal. Average income people imagine rich people always eats out. They aspire to do the same. In reality, rich and healthy people have a cook at home which makes them healthy and delicious food. Eating out is to fight boredom, boast they payed $1000 for dinner and taking a diet break .

Until average income people realize they're not "actually rich", they'll keep buying already made food to feel better than others. Not because of convenience, but because someone else doing the low status job, cooking is more important than eating well.

The older I get the ~more~ shocked I am by just how much really bad nutritional information is out there in the 'normal' world, away from highly intelligent academic circles. The poor are mostly around other poor and the quality of the information circulating in those social networks is generally exponentially poor. (Not just nutritional information, but almost all kinds.) Nicholas Christakis (Yale) had a paper a couple of years back on the spread of obesity in social networks, which seems possibly somewhat related. Also, the poor and those in highly intelligent academic circles perceive information coming from 'experts' very differently. To the poor it mostly sounds like lecturing, scolding, judging, status signalling, moralizing -- and they tend to trust the information (correct or not) from others they know more than that of the experts.

argues that Catholic education held back economic growth in 19th century France.

I'll wager that was the premise of the paper. There were no Catholic secondary schools in France for a period of nearly 60 years and the division of labor between municipal and parish schools allocated to the latter religious education and what would later be called home ec.

Food is culture. Why would someone change just because of some extra cash?

I think it has something to do with behavior changing at.the.margin. but that is just a vague memory as I always nodded off in econ classes.

lol, fair point. Although, isn't what's happening here different; that you give people more money, on the margin they become more themselves in terms of food consumption, as opposed to moving to a healthier (more expensive) palette?

This surprises me not at all. I see people in my neighborhood, who I assume are residents of the subsidized housing buildings across the street, congregate outside 7-11 while they munch on highly marked-up junk food. A block away they could buy produce at two grocery stores, and bananas aren't expensive.

For years we've been told that high levels of obesity among the poor is due to "food deserts" and the high cost of healthy food. Increasingly seems like both are myths.

A government agency published a paper exploding the "food desert" myth

Growing up near an inner city area, I noted that the stories we received in school about how children were going to bed hungry because of poverty was belied by the food choices of the poor people I knew. Rice, oatmeal and beans (not to speak of fruit and veg) cost very little and yet colas were purchased in large quantities.

I don't know if they're poor or not but the southeast Asians around here grow a lot of their own food in individual and communal gardens. On the other hand, poor white and black Americans would rather watch television than hoe a row of kale or string beans.

1. People eat what they want to eat and what they are accustomed to eating. Trying to make them change "for their own good" is insulting, patronizing, and doomed to failure.

2. Definitions of "healthy food" are all over the map, laced with bad info, and constantly change. They also contain a not-so-subtle dose of upper-middle-class bobo status signalling: "Kale with cruelty-free pancetta" is healthy but "Greens" are awful white-trash food.

3. Poor people have neither the time nor the patience to let earnest Lefties and bureaucrats lecture them about what to eat, and as free citizens of the Republic I don't see why they should have to put up with it.

"Definitions of “healthy food” are all over the map, laced with bad info, and constantly change."

Well 90% of your mileage is from dropping soda and not eating pre-packaged food bombs. If you eat some dairy and some non-lean meat I'll forgive you.

3) The people who lecture me about my food choices tend to be right wing. But that's mostly because I don't eat meat Make of that what you will, about anti-vegetarian tendencies more on the right, but the point is that the desire to lecture people about their food choices doesn't seem to be a specifically left-right thing.

Consider that there are now probably more people doing as you have just done, criticizing those who try to make ethical food choices rather than following through on the initially stated logic of respecting what choices people make (with the exception of insulting unhealthy choices associated with poverty at the same to as praising unhealthy decisions which separate oneself from the oft-maligned "virtue signalers").

I refuse to believe there's anyone who gives a rip about what you stuff into your face.

I have been in an experiment studying the eating habits of wealthy people for years, and I can report that an unconstrained food budget is preferable to food insecurity.

"The studies below highlight some of the more recent research on the complicated relationship between obesity and poverty. Overall, the research for a greater risk of obesity is more consistent for women and children (especially White women and children) of low-income or low-SES than for men. In addition, there is evidence that where there are gaps between high- and low-income groups, they have been closing with time as those with higher incomes become more obese."

Elsewhere on the site: "Based on a large national study, body mass index (or BMI, an indicator of excess body fat) was higher every year between 1986 and 2002 among adults in the lowest income group and the lowest education group than among those in the highest income and education groups, respectively (Truong & Sturm, 2005)."

This leads me to conclude that:

Trump voters with low education or low income are fat.

Here is a site that has research on the subject:

"Trump voters with low education or low income are fat."

Why Trump voters? Why not say the same thing about Clinton voters?

For the same reason 'anon' above insults the native born. Slamming one group is status-enhancing and slamming the other status-lowering.

I know I've put on a few extra lbs thanks to all the sweet sweet liberal tears I've been tasting this season. Bills are definitely the sweetest and don't appear to be drying up any time soon.

You need to lay off those high calorie, corn syrupy progressive Bill tears, and have some anon tears, which have a slightly more complex flavour.

They are all so delicious, I can't stop!

Please Bill, Anon, and the rest or your ilk think of our health and stop posting!

Trump voters are an interesting study. Incredibly sore winners. Incapable of positive emotion. Their idea of happiness is feeling vengefulness and exhibiting cruelty. They are addicted to their own adrenaline, and addicted to conflict with, and abuse of, the other political tribes.

Have you ever seen a sports team, that after winning the game, can not be happy for their success, but is instead is completely obsessed with bashing the other team that just lost to them, and with gloating over that team's sadness? Of course not. This is highly dysfunctional behavior.

After an election, if one's candidate wins with, a healthy individual might be expecting and hoping for their candidate to do good things for the whole nation, including the seventy something percent of eligible voters who did not vote for their candidate-- because they either stayed home, or else they voted for another candidate.

Divisiveness does win elections. But once the election is over, it can destroy the country, if people find themselves incapable of constructive behavior, cooperation toward common goals etc.

Your message has been forwarded to Mitch McConnell.

If the increased income happens in the summer months instead of winter, it is natural to buy more fruit. Summer fruits may well have a higher sugar content. I doubt people substantially change their eating habits seasonally simply due to increased available income,. The "extra" money could be deployed in many other ways that are not accounted for here. Catching up on rent, for example.

Consider a person is in a 'taste bracket'. For example, if you hit McDonald's a lot at the bottom of the bracket will be the $1 menu, near the top will be those 'premium sandwich' meals and 'McCafe' drinks. If one day you happen to get an extra $20 in your pocket, you may get lunch from the 'top' of the menu rather than the bottom.

But what will it take to elevate your 'taste bracket'? A large or sustained increase in income. For example, why bother learning about sushi and developing a taste for it if the $20 lunch is a one time thing? If, however, it becomes the norm then it makes sense to leave McDonald's and elevate your taste bracket.

Here it sounds like the study looked at one time hits, a slightly lower heating bill due to warmer weather.

I hate to single anyone out, but even among workers ...

What is that, 5% fit people?

Most of the people here are super fat beta cucks

I determine most of the measure of the value of food in terms of calories per dollar. So yes I buy the food considered "unhealthy," because it is cheap.

But more importantly, it is because I disagree with the idea of healthy and unhealthy here. If food makes you fat, that is because it is capable of sustaining your life for a very long time; it is very healthy food.

Switch from calories to grams protein and you'll be fine.

No you will not

Interesting point. I took a graduate level nutrition class and my big takeaway is that the liver is a chemical factory that can take the food you ate and turn it into whatever it needs. There are limits but it is an amazing organ.

'a graduate level nutrition class'

Heh heh..

They learned lots about it for a long time, and therefore must be more wrong than people who just know and never had to look further :)

By this argument you should fill your car with diesel, which is higher energy density than gasoline, regardless of what it was designed for. Also, certainly don't bother with limes on long sea voyages when you could be eating healthy, healthy salt pork.

After living in the San Francisco Bay Area -- where there is widespread consciousness about eat healthy food -- for more than three decades, I now live in Hungary, which has about the highest rates of mortality in the world for diet and lifestyle-related illnesses. It has been quite a shock! Most of my middle class and wealthy, well educated friends eat the most incredibly poor diets -- heavy on meats and potatoes (and other root vegetables) and fats and light on any kind of green vegetables or fruits. Kale is an unknown food here. While it is possible to eat relatively healthy here without much extra effort if you know what to eat, apparently few people here do. And so this issue, in my view, is more one of ignorance and habit than economics.

Fats aren't bad for you, and neither is meat. Fruits in excess and heavy grains aren't so great for you. This is the issue with diet. You call yourself knowledgeable on diet but think that eating lots of fruit and very little fat is healthy. They also eat tons of kale in Hungary. I've also spent time there. They are largely big due to heavy alcohol and pasta/potato consumption. Also lots of smoking.

Stop it. They're fat because they eat too many calories.

There's a good recent book by an M.D. on this It does matter WHAT you eat, not just the total number of calories.

Eat Fat, Get Thin: Why the Fat We Eat Is the Key to Sustained Weight Loss and Vibrant Health Feb 23, 2016
by Mark Hyman M.D.

Most people are better off eating fat than sugar or white potatoes or white flour. The glycemic index-- basically the sugar or simple carb content-- of foods matters a lot.

This presupposes the idea that there is "healthy food" and that we even know what that is.

I think they start with the basics. Cigarettes, beer and Twinkies are not the health foods that we all believed they were not so long ago and work up the health food ladder to broccoli to sort out what is in between.

Here's a hint. Soda and cake are not healthy foods. Vegetables are.

One problem is that soda and cakes are made by specific manufacturers, so they are advertised widely. Vegetable, by contrast, are sort of generic, in the sense that people don't usually notice which company they come from and do not buy them on that basis. So we're immersed in ads for unhealthy food, but not for healthy food.

Sometimes marketing boards, including government ones, pick up the slack in terms of marketing fruit and veg products.

Prove it!!! Show me the stats that prove people who drink sodas or eat cake/twinkies die young whereas those who eat vegetables live longer.

As for beer and cigarettes I don't disagree. Except I will say that I doubt that one beer a day will harm you and some doctors/scientists believe one beer (drink) a day is actually beneficial.

Some vegetables are super foods in terms of vitamins and minerals; such as sweet potatoes/yams. Some vegetables offer quality protein such as beans/lentils. Clearly these are good foods. Yet if your diet already provides you all the protein, vitamins and minerals you need (your MDR) eating more of it doesn't help and eating foods like cakes or twinkies doesn't hurt. The exception to this is those who have health problems where a specific diet alleviates their symptoms or improves their condition.

The problem is no one can agree on what a healthy diet is. There are often vague references to junk food being bad or natural foods or whole foods or organic foods being good. But what is a "good diet"? Ask a vegan and you get one answer. Ask a Paleo and you get a totally opposite answer. Read any/all of the various books about food/diet and you will find 100 different answers. It all depends on which fad/myth you believe it.

Show me the stats that prove people who drink sodas or eat cake/twinkies die young whereas those who eat vegetables live longer.

I really don't think you're aware of much if you don't know that these people die young... the only question is whether they die young because of the twinkies or because they also don't wear seatbelts, take their medicine, or exercise.

"These people"? All kinds of people eat what is considered junk food and all kinds of people eat what is considered healthy food. It isn't really about being poor although that was what the article referenced. The single biggest health problem in this country is drugs or more correctly harmful drug use mostly for the purpose of getting high. The only way to evaluate the effects, good or bad, from the food people consume is to have large scale long term testing monitored by health professionals. We have those tests/surveys and one of the better known one is the NHANES. Suprisingly after years of tracking people who changed their diet to something "healthy" vs control groups who ate the usual crap little to no difference was found because of diet.

The bottom line is that you need your MDRs. And you need calories. Once you get these it doesn't really matter what else you eat. You can have a soda or a twinkie. Your body doesn't know or care if the sugar that enters your bloodstream came from a twinkie or a organic apple. It doesn't care if the iron came from supplemented white bread or spinach. .

I live adjacent to a low income part of Baltimore. Just by way of anecdote, I see lots of food stamp usage in the grocery stores I frequent. As a general rule older people and people with children (that is, who have the kids with them) appear to be shopping sensibly most of the time: buying foods not much different from anyone else. whether that's healthy or not I leave to others to decide. However single people, above all single young men buy large quantities of snacks and other low-nutrition food with food stamps so this I think is where the problem lies and it may skewing the results overall.

Good point.

What about exercise? is that also a luxury for low-income households in the United States ?

No. But taking an evening constitutional is a great deal more anxiety provoking in a neighborhood with a homicide rate of 45 per 100,000 than it is in a neighborhood with a homicide rate of 2 per 100,000. Local governments need to deal with the problem here (which of course they won't).


Some of this boils down to upper class white people wondering why inner city Mom and Dad don't take their dog for a walk on an evening stroll every night. It's good for their health ! Without understanding how literally everything in that sentence is wrong or inapplicable.

Sugar and corn syrup seem to have an addictive quality to them. They make your blood sugar unsteady and then you crave them more.

Ignorance-- like fake news-- surrounds us constantly. Ignorance, including the lies in fake news, wins elections, and many think it won this one.

I am blocked from including links in my comments, for some reason. I used to be able to include them, as others can do, but I somehow was blocked. So just google the titles if you would like to see these articles.

See article in The Guardian entitled

Click and elect: how fake news helped Donald Trump win a real election

Also see article in Vox about the history of Republicans' sue of fake news, politician bashing, and propaganda to successfully win elections. Title is:

The political scientist who saw Trump's rise coming
Norm Ornstein on why the Republican Party was ripe for a takeover, what the media missed, and whether Trump could win the presidency.

Ignorance is bliss for both the Republican party in trying to win elections, and also for mega-corporations getting farm subsidies and mega-corporations selling unhealthy food to the public.

How comfortable it must be, Jill. To know that everything you disagree with is based on evil, propaganda, lies, and racism. Wrap yourself in that blanket if it helps you sleep at night. But be aware that you don't live in the real world. At all.

How utterly and thorough detached from reality must one be, to not know that sugar in large doses is unhealthy?

Please point to the republican candidate for president that said people would be healthier if they would only eat more sugar. Or the Fox News report that said childhood obesity rates would be better if would eat more Milky ways.

"...sugar in large doses is unhealthy"

There are only three basic things in our food; protein, fat and carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrates 100% of it is converted to sugar before it passes from your intestines into your blood stream. Without sugar in your bloodstream you will pass out, go into a coma and die. Sugar is essentiai to life, you will die within minutes without it. Proteins are essential as well, you will die within months to years without it; ditto for fats. Hmmmm! Seems sugar is in fact critical. We have a learned dislike or untrust of refined sugar. you can eat an organic potato or organic brown rice and it is turned into sugar by your digestive system but we fear eating the sugar. The organic vegetable is called "good" and sugar is called "bad".

I will readily agree that refined sugars have no other nutrients and our body does indeed need a large and varied number of nutrients. But to claim sugar is bad is naive and more the result of modern superstition than science. Will it cause blood sugar spikes? Absolutely! As will consuming any carbohydrate. But that is exactly what your body is designed to deal with and after eating the excess energy/sugar is stored in your muscles and liver to be readily available when you need it. Can consuming sugar be harmful? Yes, if you are diabetic but no if you are not diabetic.

Mac and cheese. Yum!

You can all live to 100 and die of dementia in nursing homes. I'll take the heart attack.

Healthy, shmealthy. The Obese Poor simply need to count their calories. They can eat Twinkies for Breakfast, a big mac for lunch, and a frozen meal for dinner and be just fine, as long as they don't exceed their Basal Metabolism Rate each day.

And you know what? The bodies of people in "high income households" work the same way. Counting your calories is 90% of a healthy diet.

This is an absurdly misinformed post. Read Gary Taubes. Calories in/calories out thinking completely ignores the different hormonal and metabolic responses caused by different types of food. It also ignores differences in body composition (you can lose body fat without reducing caloric intake or net changing energy expenditure by gaining muscle mass, denser bones, etc., leaving you at the same weight).

And aside from aesthetic considerations, eating a healthy diet definitely leads to better health and longevity, and probably prevents many autoimmune diseases (speculative on this last point).

No one need to count calories to lose weight or be healthier—you realize that the ability for the general public to count calories is extremely recent, right?

Also, the more muscle mass you have, the higher your BMR, and the easier it is to stay lean. Do Twinkies build and maintain muscle mass as good as beef? (In case anyone is unclear about this, the answer is "no"). The quality of ones diet most definitely matters, it's not purely a question of quantity.

Building enough muscle mass to increase your resting metabolism is incredibly tough work. Gaining a pound of muscle per month is considered very good and would require putting in lots of time at the gym. That extra pound of muscle will burn an extra 6 calories per day. So if you work out like an athlete for one year, one of the best case scenarios is that you will have gained 12 pounds of muscle and will have increased your resting metabolism by 72 calories.

George Orwell has written penetratingly about the poor diet of the English working class poor in The Road to Wigan Pier, chapter 6 - this back in the 1930s. The excerpt is long, and I have put it here:

In short, he states that mass industrial production of low-quality cheap food has ruined the English physique, that sweet junk food is a wholly understandable human desire, ESPECIALLY when living is hard, and that it feels galling to have upper classes dictate to lower classes how they should shop for food, despite it being eminently sensible and advisable to take the advice.

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