Eliminating food assistance programs will do little to reduce obesity among poor Americans, according to UM-Dearborn Prof. Patricia Smith, who explores the issue in her new book

September 30, 2009

Smith

DEARBORN / Sept. 30, 2009---Obesity costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year in reduced labor productivity and increased medical expenses associated with Medicare and Medicaid, leading policy makers to seek ways to reduce obesity prevalence.

“Since obesity is more prevalent among the poor than non-poor, some argue that public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called the Food Stamp Program) and National School Lunch Program contribute to weight gain and should be drastically revised or eliminated,” says University of Michigan-Dearborn economics Prof. Patricia Smith.

But eliminating or cashing out food assistance programs will do little to reduce obesity among poor Americans, according to Smith.

“I’ve found there’s no consistent evidence that either cash or food assistance contributes to weight gain among children and men,” she says.

Smith used a multidisciplinary approach to explore the elevated risk of obesity among the poor in her new book, Obesity among Poor Americans: Is Public Assistance the Problem? published this summer by Vanderbilt University Press.

What Smith’s research has found is that use of food stamps is consistently associated with higher weight among women, but it’s not clear why.

“Food stamps may enable women to buy more calories or the once-a-month distribution schedule may lead to disordered eating patterns, tempting women to feast on calorie-dense comfort foods when benefits arrive at the beginning of the month and then fasting at the end of the month when benefits have run out,” Smith explains.

However, food stamps’ contribution to obesity among the poor is minor, accounting for only about 5 percent of the cases of obesity among poor Americans, according to Smith.
“The association could also arise because obesity tends to lower women’s labor market outcomes and reduces their chance of marriage, making them more likely to be poor and eligible for public assistance,” she says.

Smith also finds compelling evidence that poverty contributes to weight gain by limiting the poor to neighborhoods with reduced access to nutritious lower calorie foods, fewer facilities for physical activity and greater exposure to stressors such as crime and pollution.

In addition, childhood abuse, family violence and disability can increase both the risks of poverty and obesity, according to Smith.

“The relationship between obesity and public assistance is complex and can’t be explained as merely the result of assistance causing weight gain,” she says. “Thus, eliminating or cashing out food assistance programs will not effectively address the problem of obesity among the poor, but will increase their hardships.”

Smith recommends increasing the frequency of food assistance distribution, expanding nutrition education programs, developing policies to increase access to nutritious foods in low income areas, and improving the nutrition environment in public schools.

"Understanding the reasons why the poor in general and the welfare-reliant in particular are more likely to be obese will help us design more effective policies to reduce obesity's high public and private costs," Smith says.

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