The Economics Of Poverty And Food

ap090317017433The Washington Post ran an article today laying out in excruciating detail how expensive it is to be poor. As reporter DeNeen Brown put it, “the poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace.” And by far, the most striking problem to me was the extra costs associated with buying food. Consider:

You don’t have a car to get to a supermarket, much less to Costco or Trader Joe’s, where the middle class goes to save money. You don’t have three hours to take the bus. So you buy groceries at the corner store, where a gallon of milk costs an extra dollar. A loaf of bread there costs you $2.99 for white. For wheat, it’s $3.79. The clerk behind the counter tells you the gallon of leaking milk in the bottom of the back cooler is $4.99….The milk is beneath the shelf that holds beef bologna for $3.79. A pound of butter sells for $4.49…(At a Safeway on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, the wheat bread costs $1.19, and white bread is on sale for $1. A gallon of milk costs $3.49 — $2.99 if you buy two gallons. A pound of butter is $2.49. Beef bologna is on sale, two packages for $5.)

That will add up to a lot of money pretty quickly, especially if buying food for children is involved. PolicyLink has found that wealthy neighborhoods have “three times as many supermarkets as low-wealth neighborhoods,” and “prices at the corner stores that dot inner city neighborhoods …can be much as 49 percent higher than those of supermarkets, for a limited selection of canned and processed foods and very little, if any, fresh meat and produce.” So people in low income neighborhoods are paying much more money for far lousier food.

It’s actually in our economic interest to increase access to healthier food. For one thing, inadequate nutrition means less healthy people, which drives up health care costs. Second, studies have found that students from households with inadequate food have lower math scores and are more likely to have repeated a grade. Children who experience hunger are twice as likely to receive special education services as children who do not. This chips away at our human capital.

New York City has done some good work with providing tax incentives for supermarkets to move into low-income neighborhoods and with encouraging community gardening and the proliferation of farmer’s markets. If more cities initiated programs like these, that would be an excellent start to reversing what right now looks like a terribly vicious cycle of poverty, malnutrition, and economic immobility.