Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 22, 2012

Invisible Malnutrition and America's Future

By David K. Shipler

Senators from both parties are congratulating themselves for passing the agriculture bill yesterday as a model of bipartisan responsibility and healthy compromise—a model of just what legislators should do. But the result is not an example of what legislators should do. It cuts $4.5 billion from the $80-billion annual food stamp program, which helps keep 45 million Americans—most of them children—from the throes of malnutrition.

Responsible legislators would look ahead to the future of a country where millions of children get inadequate nutrients during critical periods of brain development. We know what that means—“we” being our society, which includes the neurologists and pediatricians and nutritionists and psychologists who have studied the lifelong impacts of early malnutrition. Their expertise never seems to penetrate the walls surrounding Capitol Hill.

A raft of research has found that the timing of nutritional deficiency during the most sensitive periods of brain growth can determine which mental capabilities are damaged. During the second trimester of pregnancy, the creation of neurons can be affected. During the third trimester, neuron maturation and the production of branched cells called glia, can be inhibited. From birth until about age two, food scarcity can assault the rapidly developing brain enough to lower I.Q. And even if good nutrition is restored later, there is no full recovery. Early deprivation creates lifetime cognitive impairment.

You might think that Republicans who zealously protect fetuses from abortion would be concerned about the fetuses’ brain development. But just wait until this agriculture bill gets to the House, where Republicans are sharpening their knives to cut food assistance even more—by $134 billion over ten years under Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which would also convert the program into block grants to states. Mr. Ryan and his colleagues should read From Neurons to Neighborhoods, an excellent compendium by the National Academy of Sciences of studies, written in layman’s language. One would like to assume that they would be moved.

Lobbyists on behalf of food aid say that Republicans are driven by a few attitudes and beliefs. They want to force more of the poor into food banks, where healthy staples are distributed for free and the temptations of junk food are nonexistent. (Food stamps—now in the form of debit cards, are not supposed to be used for junk food, but it’s a rule not always observed by struggling corner stores in poor neighborhoods.)

Obesity, partly from eating unhealthy food, is seen as evidence of indulgence, but its epidemic scope among the low-income can also mask malnutrition. Overweight people are often getting the wrong kind of food, lacking key nutrients. So malnutrition rarely presents itself in America as vividly as in Somalia. Unless you hang out in malnutrition clinics in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, you’re not likely to see emaciated children like the ones on TV. If malnutrition in America were photogenic, even Republicans might hesitate to cut benefits.

Food banks are not the answer, however, because they are struggling both from lack of funds and a lack of surplus food from grocery stores whose computer systems now track purchasing and ordering so efficiently that there’s not much excess to give away.

Then there is the Republican contempt for the poor. As we heard during the presidential primary, an ugly current of distaste for those who need food assistance runs through the rightwing of America. Obama is the “food-stamp president.” People should work instead of depending on government handouts. Recipients are somehow immoral. Fraud and corruption are rampant—not true, by the way, since officials put the level at around 1 percent, far lower than practically any other government program, especially the Defense Department.

It’s too bad we use the word “hungry” to describe both the transitory discomfort of a busy Congressman who has to miss lunch, and the durable condition of deprivation that has longterm consequences for both the individual and the nation. I would love to put Ryan and his colleagues through the Navy survival course I took years ago, when we were put out in the woods for five days without food. Your horizon of interest closes in on you. You do not think about poetry or music; you even stop being interested in the other five guys in your unit, except in what they can help find to eat. Food  becomes an obsession. A Congressman might even stop thinking about fundraising. I had a flashback to this experience when I was told by Deborah Frank, a pediatrician who heads a malnutrition clinic in Boston, that learning is a discretionary activity. It can happen only when you are well fed.

If you sit in the backs of classrooms, you can watch students tuning out of the lessons they can’t follow. If you ask kids in poor neighborhoods what percentage of the time they don’t understand what a teacher is saying, you get startling figures: 30, 40, 50 percent or more. If I had to sit in rooms not knowing what was going on half the time, would I continue to show up only to feel stupid?

There are many reasons for the high dropout rate from high schools, including the complex wages of poverty’s stress, violence, and hopelessness. But cognitive disabilities are surely among them. And while there are various reasons for mental impairment, there is no doubt that malnutrition is among them.

That means that food stamps, now called Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, should be expanded, not contracted, especially as higher skills, not lower, are required for economic success.

Oh, and by the way, in case anybody cares, without food stamps the poverty rate would jump by 2.5 percent, the Census Bureau calculates—from 15.2 to 17.7 percent.


  1. This is such a good piece, Dave. It's just infuriating to watch the Right Wing do so much damage to our country! - over and over again - in almost every way. They are so SHORT SIGHTED!!! It's just infuriating!
    Well - I just wish they'd read your piece - but I know that they are so well defended, so entombed in their thick walls, they'd just call you a Lying Pinko Commie or something - I've seen that they are INPENETRABLE!! It's amazing - but it does give me insight as to how an entire country of supposedly literate people could vote for Hitler and Nazism! I've had my eyes opened in recent years! The stupidity that abounds in this country at this time is truly astounding - so upsetting.
    I wish your pieces would chip away at someone, somewhere - many someones, many somewheres - but unfortunately I'm just very pessimistic. (And don't you just love that so many of these callous, cruel Right Wing bigoted idiots are supposedly "religious Christians?!" I just LOVE it!!! What a crock!...)

  2. In this column, David Shipler, almost always perspicacious, penetrates to the most profound reason for public assistance. Food Stamps (now known as SNAP) are not merely a safety net to prevent hunger. This program expands opportunities as it reduces barriers to fetal and child development caused by malnutrition. This aspect of public assistance is often overlooked and under-evaluated because we think of assistance such as SNAP primarily as a handout to help households that cannot provide for their own needs. Many forms of public assistance are indispensable for more equal opportunity.

    Examined from this perspective, efforts to reduce the debt by cutting expenditures for nutrition, healthcare, and education for the poorest citizens cannot be defended as denying aid to those who can provide for themselves. Without effective SNAP, Head Start, after-school programs, health education, and healthcare, children from poorer families have little opportunity to fend for themselves. They lack the cognitive, mental, and physical capability to functioning at a reasonable level.

    When Congressman Ryan and others propose cutting social spending while refusing to return to tax levels of the nineties on high income households, the issue is not merely unfairness or a failure to demand an equal sacrifice for all citizens, as President Obama puts it. The problem is more fundamental. Unless high income households are required to contribute to effective public assistance that expands opportunities, children—and adults— will be denied opportunities because they are malnourished, poorly educated, or lack healthcare. High income households will be complicit in undermining a shared America value. The problem transcends distributive fairness. It is thwarted opportunity.

    I do not know if the small cuts in SNAP passed by the Senate will jeopardize opportunity for America’s children. However, the cuts in excess of $13 billion annually proposed by Congressman Ryan go beyond demanding self-reliance in order to lower the deficit. They even go beyond unfairly preserving tax breaks for the well-off. They condone an unequal distribution of income that subverts opportunity for all.

    Harlan Beckley
    Director, Shepherd Program on Poverty and Human Capability
    Washington and Lee University