In a country where it is a national pastime to find new ways to blame poor people for the crime of being poor, even food choice becomes a site of class warfare. Consider the popularized image of the low-income family who subsists on a steady diet of fast food; each burger, fry and milkshake they consume regarded as yet more evidence of bad decision-making. It’s one of those ideas now deeply embedded in our poverty-pathologizing culture, the kind of untested “fact” politicians reference to ensure we remain “them” and “us,” even at the dinner table. The trouble is, it simply isn’t true.
A recent Centers for Disease Control survey of 5,000 American children and adolescents age 2 to 19 offers proof that poor people not only don't consume more fast food than those with higher incomes, they actually consume slightly less. The study, which looked at figures from 2011-'12, found that “no significant difference was seen by poverty status in the average daily percentage of calories consumed from fast food among children and adolescents aged 2 to 19.” In fact, the poorest children surveyed got the least amount of their daily calorie intake from fast food, at just 11.5 percent. That number rose to 13 percent for their more affluent peers.
If anything, the takeaway from the study is that American kids across the board are eating way too much fast food, with “34.3 percent of all children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 consum[ing] fast food on a given day.”
As the Atlantic notes, this isn’t the first study to indicate that the much cited link between poverty and fast food consumption doesn’t really exist. At least, not in numbers any more glaring or worrisome than for other socioeconomic groups. In 2011, researchers from UC Davis noted that people with lower-middle-class incomes — not the poor — ate the most McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s and the like. “Fast-food restaurant visits rose along with annual household income up to $60,000,” researchers wrote. And a Gallup poll from 2013 found “[t]hose earning the least actually are the least likely to eat fast food weekly — 39% of Americans earning less than $20,000 a year do so.” Conversely, more affluent Americans — “those earning $75,000 a year or more — are more likely to eat [fast food] at least weekly (51%) than are lower-income groups.”
Still, the mythical relationship between poverty and fast-food is used and manipulated, time and time again. In 2014, the Daily Caller — Tucker Carlson’s website — stoked anti-poverty sentiments among its conservative readership with a list of “questionable” items which food stamps can be used, including two fast food restaurants. (“Taco Bell is one of many fast food restaurants that accept EBT cards. Guacamole is extra? Who cares? It’s on the taxpayer.”) Fox’s Boston affiliate, in a piece on its website titled “Should Welfare Recipients be Blocked from Buying Fast Food?” opens with this fine bit of scaremongering: “Massachusetts State welfare recipients have spent a whopping $44,000 worth of Big Macs, Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets last year in a debit card spending spree.”
But perhaps most troubling is the way this fallacious idea is trotted out when it comes to policy for the poor. Earlier this year, Arizona Senate Republican Kelly Townsend submitted a bill to prohibit the use of food stamps at fast food restaurants. Maine’s Republican governor Paul LePage has been pushinglegislation that would keep food stamp recipients from buying “unhealthy” food, whatever that means. In Wisconsin, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, state Rep. Robert Brooks has put forth a bill that would keep food stamp recipients from buying “crab, lobster or other shellfish” — none of which, last I checked, falls under the banner of “junk food.” And Republicans in Missouri are trying to pass a law that would make food stamps invalid for buying “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks” — and unbelievably, “seafood or steak."
“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards," Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin, who introduced the bill, told theWashington Post. "When I can't afford it on my pay, I don't want people on the taxpayer's dime to afford those kinds of foods either."
I don’t for one nanosecond believe Rick Brattin when he says he saw, with his own eyes, EBT card users buying fancy steaks and seafood. I also can hardly believe that Brattin, whose salary is paid with tax revenue, doesn’t see the irony in complaining about anyone doing anything on the “taxpayer’s dime.” However, the one thing I appreciate about Brattin’s words is how they cut to the chase on all this pretend handwringing and faux outrage about how poor people use their food stamps, or what they buy for dinner, or the kind of cellphones they own, or cars they drive, or any of the other nonsense reasons used as justification for taking punitive action. Because let's just admit that this constant restricting of rights and tightening of resources is absolutely punishment against the poor.
Fundamental to this way of thinking is the idea that being poor is a crime for which one must be humiliated and stigmatized at every possible turn, an offense for which people should be constantly reminded that they both deserve and inherently are less. It perpetuates the dumb and simple idea that the poor are poor because they simply refuse to stop being poor: that they spend their money frivolously and foolishly, and so must be told what to buy and what to eat. It’s an idea that, followed to its logical end, suggests that the poor deserve to be poor. Which is absurd for endless reasons, mainly that it’s straight-up wrong about how poor people use their money.
Talking Points Memo notes “[t]he poor spend nearly double the share that the rich spend on food they cook at home, while the rich spend more on eating out” according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a recent Mother Jones article points out that food stamp recipients are more mindful about food than the aforementioned lawmakers would have us know:
[D]ictating what you can buy with food stamps is the kind of thing that only sounds good to people who don't actually have to survive on a poverty income. No one denies me the occasional candy bar or Coke; why would I feel entitled to exert that kind of control over poor people? And guess what: SNAP recipients already eat more virtuously than the rest of us. A 2008 USDA report found that they are less likely than those with higher incomes to consume at least one serving of sweets or salty snacks per day. More recently, a 2015 USDA study concluded that, adjusting for demographic differences, people who take SNAP benefits don't consume any more sugary drinks than their low-income peers who aren't in the program.
There are questions worth investigating based on the CDC study findings. For example, researchers are still trying to understand why the poorest Americans, despite consuming less fast food, are disproportionately obese. (The Food Research and Action Center offers up a number of ideas, from food deserts to unsafe playgrounds that make exercise difficult.) But what it does clear up is the false idea that poverty is somehow uniquely synonymous with fast food. Or that being poor is a simple problem of poor people's own making.