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

November 1, 2013

Food Stamps: The Chain Reaction

By David K. Shipler

            Let’s give the Republicans in Congress the benefit of the doubt. (Yes, I hear the groans, boos, and catcalls.) But let’s be charitable for a moment and assume that they had no idea, when they allowed severe cuts in food stamps to take effect today, that they were damaging the brain development, lifelong cognitive capacity, and therefore the future earning power of untold numbers of American children. If they had known, surely the legislators would not have done what they did.
            That may sound like an overstatement until you look at the science or, more broadly, the interaction between economics and biology.
            The chain reaction between early malnutrition and various intellectual and behavioral deficits has been well established by neuroscience. Extensive documentation, in readable form, can be found in a thick digest of studies published in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences, with the provocative title From Neurons to Neighborhoods. The research has been updated since in scholarly papers and conferences.
            Inadequate iron and other nutrients during the critical periods of brain development—especially the second and third trimesters of pregnancy and the first two years after birth—damages the complex, overlapping processes of growth.
Affected are the creation of brain cells, their migration to proper locations, and the development of links and points of communication. Iron deficiency has been shown to reduce the size of the brain and the development of the myelin sheath, which is the fatty, insulating envelope around nerve fibers, and which facilitates the transmission of impulses among neurons. Insufficient nutrition during the second trimester reduces the creation of neurons. In the third trimester it impairs neurons’ maturation and the production of neuroglia, the network of branched cells. And so on.
            Longitudinal studies of children who suffered from iron deficiency in infancy have found that even if proper nutrition is restored later, the consequences don’t disappear. As adolescents, they score lower in math, writing, motor functioning, spatial memory, and selective recall. They exhibit more anxiety, depression, social problems, and attention deficits. It would not take a leap of logic to deduce—although I don’t know of scientific research on this point—that children with such cognitive and learning disabilities are more likely to drop out of school. In addition, learning is a discretionary activity, as Dr. Deborah Frank, head of a Boston malnutrition clinic, has observed. It happens after you’re well fed. Hunger saps concentration.
            Malnutrition during pregnancy is also held accountable for a portion of premature births, which may inflict a “biological insult” to the brain. Prematurity, which some scientists link to genetic factors as well, occurs disproportionately among African-American and poor populations. “Infants born at very low birth weight appear to account for approximately one-third of children with cerebral palsy and 10 percent of those with mental retardation,” write Drs. Barry Zuckerman and Robert Kahn.
            If you don’t finish high school—and here’s an argument for conservatives—you earn less, pay less in taxes, have more chance of going to expensive prisons, and endure health problems beyond your years that are costly for society. In short, you are not going to function as well in life as you would have with a full education, and you’re less likely to get that if you had inadequate nutrition when your brain was developing.
            Laying out this chain reaction, it looks so obvious that it’s a wonder it’s not seen clearly by policymakers. On the right, however, there’s a view that suffering and deprivation motivate people to study better, work harder, and make a living that brings them opportunity. If government steps in constantly, they reason, motivation will decline.
            This may be true in some cases, but it’s generally not the way it looks from the ground, when you sit and talk to people who work a good deal harder than members of Congress. Those who labor in long, tedious shifts, who get up at three in the morning to man assembly lines in bakeries, who staff the fast-food grills and wash cars, who clean offices all night and mind children in daycare centers, but who earn too little to feed their families properly, are as highly motivated as people can be.
Members of Congress might pause to consider that the pumpkins they put on their front porches last night were probably harvested by farm workers paid a pittance, and that the Christmas trees they will decorate in their living rooms will have been cut by those who struggle to provide their children with adequate nutrition.
Food is the part of a low-income family’s budget that is most vulnerable, because most other expenditures are not optional. A large study some years ago found a high correlation between low-income families not receiving any government housing subsidies and underweight children. If you don’t have Section Eight vouchers through which government pays part of your rent, or if you don’t live in public or “affordable” housing, your rent on the open market can chew up 50 to 70 percent of your income.
That is not an optional payment. You have to pay the rent each month. You have to pay the electric bill. You have to make the car payment if you need a car to get to work—as over 90 percent of workers in this country do. The expenditure that can be squeezed is the one for food.
The food stamp program—now called SNAP and distributed on a debit card—has never covered an entire month’s food budget for a family. People who get the benefit will tell you that it may carry them for two to three weeks, at the most. Food pantries run by churches and other charitable organizations cannot fill the gap, partly because the efficiencies of computer inventories leave supermarkets with little in the way of leftovers to donate.
The poverty line for a family of four this year is $23,550. That comes out to $11.32 an hour even if a worker can get a full 40 hours of work a week, and is more than many low-skilled jobs pay. (Most poor families are headed by single adults—that is, only one wage-earner.)
Try to do the math. Several years ago, I attended an exercise at a college where groups of four or five students were designated as families, given a realistic income from wages and benefits, and a list of typical costs in the area for housing, car payments, utilities, and the like. The students pored over the figures for a long while, trying to make the inflows and outflows balance.
When they reported to the whole class, it was with a sense of frustration and futility. One group said they’d decided that the only way to survive was to steal food.

            Please show this to your member of Congress and see if he or she deserves the benefit of the doubt.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, brother! This is so depressing! I am just stunned at the callousness of the Hateful, Repulsive Republican Party. What I especially love is the way most of them consider themselves Christians! Hey, what?! Now there's a good laugh for you, eh?!
    My Congressman, Chris Gibson - is right in there with them. Basically, he's a Republican, through and through. (And what a pity - I used to have a WONDERFUL Congressman - Maurice Hinchey - who retired two years ago. A Dem, of course.)
    I just don't know what this country is coming to but it's pretty damn depressing!
    Thanks for your piece. It's thoughtful and knowledgeable. If only those DUNDERHEADS would READ IT! - But, really, they're not interested - that's the facts. So sad - so depressing... It's getting so that I can hardly bear to watch MSNBC - my favorite station - because everything they report is triple-depressing!!! - about the Filthy Pubs!!! Really does make me SICK.