Among the findings from his landmark analysis of the Midtown Manhattan Study on mental health in 1964, Dr. Albert “Mickey” Stunkard was the first to identify that lower income appears to correlate to a higher rate of obesity. Essentially, poor people are fatter which seems to present a paradox that food insecurity leads to weight gain.
There are many, many theories why this was true then and remains true today. I have some theories of my own. I’ll start by saying it’s interesting to note that the correlation pre-dates the upward shift in weight of the average American as the CDC began to notice in the 70s. We might look at how today’s obesogenic environment has exacerbated social dynamics that existed before the onslaught of junk food.
I draw my theories from two points of reference: My own experiences dealing with financial challenges following the crash of 2008 and how that impacted my work and my observations as a tutor working in low-income housing facilities. I start from a place of considering Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The Hierarchy proposes that certain needs must be met before we can consider higher-level interests. In this case, consider that when money is in short supply and you live week to week, maybe even day to day, managing the little money you have to meet your basic living expenses tends to dominate your life. Being concerned about the nutritional quality of food becomes a luxury. Buying what food you can afford is the focus.
Imagine the effort it takes to plan for a health-supporting diet. You consider the nutritional content of foods, you plan for storage needs for perishable foods, you consider how to cook and prepare fresh foods. Choosing between fresh vegetables and frozen pizza is about your interest in making certain choices for yourself. For a person whose life is dominated by managing limited financial resources, the focus is on what food can be bought today and what can last through a few days and the end of the week. When food insecurity is a constant worry, planning for the nutritional content is not going to be the primary concern.
The residents of the housing facilities where I tutor have very limited kitchens. Some residents might not have means to cook or store fresh food their tiny one-room apartments. The monthly SNAP benefits for an individual in Illinois is $200 a month. When you’re faced with a budget like that, you’ll look for the biggest box or bag of something instead of spending $3 on a 1 pound bag of grapes or a cantaloupe.
I remember being particularly offended last year when Newt Gingrich spoke about how children from low-income families had no model for hard work and working for a paycheck. What planet does this man live on? Low-income people work minimum wage jobs that are often labor-intensive and back-breaking, on their feet all day. Folks with families may have more than one job. Planning to cook nutritious meals is difficult enough when you don’t have to try to manage childcare and demanding work schedules with few resources that could make it all easier.
I think also that food plays a very different role in the lives of lower income people. It really is a luxury to pursue hobbies and personal interests and to do work that gives you a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. You fill your free time with what you want to do. I can tell that for many of the people I work with, food is the focus of their social activity and their most pleasurable pastime. Further, eating something “big” makes them feel celebratory and rewarded. Eating out for them is limited pretty much to fast food restaurants where buying the biggest burger is a highly-valued indulgence.
I can only speculate what low-income people ate in the 1960s to display higher rates of obesity than their more affluent counterparts. Cheap starches? Potatoes, rice, beans, pasta? Homemade sandwiches? Most people did cook back then; there was little choice. The “TV dinner” became popular only in the mid-1950s and the snack aisle at the grocery store was pretty much Lays Potato Chips and Fritos, the end. When I was growing up, I knew of ONE McDonald’s in my hometown and I remember when it didn’t have a drive-thru yet. But for poor people, buying and preparing food is reduced to the basics of just getting through the week and they’ve always done it however they can.
Today we judge people on what we perceive their life choices to be. Those who would harbor bias would like to assume that everyone has an equal shot at maintaining an average bodyweight and earning a stable living. Anything less is believed to be the justifiable result of poor judgment and character flaws. Look at the trend of middle class people viciously calling for drug testing of the “unworthy” poor to receive public assistance and the use of remotely causal “evidence” calling for crackdowns on the presumption that welfare benefits are spent at liquor stores and strip clubs.
To be fat is to be presumed weak and undisciplined. To be poor and fat is to be reduced to the lowest levels of our society’s perception of the most incapable, irresponsible, and ignorant.