Policy Point Wednesday: Poverty, Interventions, Science, and Perspective

Policy Point Recently, I came across this post, “Why I Won’t Do the Food Stamp Challenge,” a must-read for food advocates of all stripes. In it, the author describes the reality her foster kids’ mothers faced:

“The mother has used up her TANF payments, and so they are living on food stamps. But food stamps don’t pay for tampons, soap, shoes, toilet paper, cleaning fluid, roach killer, school supplies, or anything else you need living in a motel. So their mother trades a portion of her food stamps to get a percent on the dollar to buy those things – she can lose her kids for sending them to school dirty, for not having shoes for them.”

(The sobering reality between the lines: if the author is their foster mother…plainly this herculean effort by their birth mother was unsuccessful.)

Reading this and knowing that I write recipes for the food desert was sobering – but I’ve always known that the Food Desert Project is a kind of gedankenexperiment. I never intended it to be a solution, just a look at the possibilities that exist in the food desert right now. We can’t effect social change without exploring each side of the problem individually, and I chose to explore foods that are accessible – but in doing that, I knowingly ignored serious issues like budget, access to equipment or power, access to information and education.  I’m sure there are many other issues that keep my project firmly rooted in theory rather than practice.

While I have always been privileged (I was gifted with an excellent education and parents who were willing to bail me out in emergencies,) like many privileged people, I have been nominally poor in my lifetime. Many of the jobs I held as a young adult, while living on my own, were part-time jobs at minimum wage. What’s most interesting about having been “poor” is how quickly you forget what it’s like as soon as you are stable – and how easy it is to complain about budgeting when it isn’t critical to your survival. It also offers a false sense of what real poverty is like: I always had the option to give up and go back home, but people living in systemic, generational poverty find that their entire outlook on life is affected by poverty.

I believe that many of our problems dealing with effective interventions for people living in desperate circumstances stem from experiences like mine: “tighten your belt” only works when your belt has notches to tighten. It’s a real challenge for someone to understand why anyone would choose to eat unwholesome junk food rather than living on beans unless you know that giving up small splurges is unlikely to improve your circumstances, but doing without will deaden your spirits.

So, what’s an advocate to do? We need to make sure that we aren’t imposing our own value system on the people we’re trying to help, and yet we have to find a way to help. Sadly, our biases can spell doom for anti-poverty or food security efforts – for instance, the current climate supporting fresh produce may not work well for “motel kids” whose families don’t have access to a refrigerator. Enter science: randomized, controlled studies allow us to try different interventions and review their effectiveness while accounting for variables like bias or misinformation. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-Pal for short, was founded in 2003 to promote controlled trials of antipoverty efforts.

For instance, I often hear the phrase “if it’s free then it won’t be valued” as a justification for charging fees for services to the poor. J-Pal researchers also found that service providers were charging for services, and tested the theory in Sub-Saharan Africa, first in a trial designed to decrease malaria by increasing the use of insecticidal bed nets. Researchers conducted randomized, controlled trials where bed nets were offered for at discounts between 90 to 100% of the market rate, and found that offering bed nets for free increased their usage. What’s more, J-Pal extended this research to a number of other health-related initiatives and found that, in these cases, usage increased if the interventions were offered for free.

Human beings are complex animals – often fooling ourselves with our own complexity. We live with all kinds of fallacies and rationalizations, most of which operate subconsciously. When people of means make decisions about the lives of people living on the edge, we need to take every precaution to separate fact from fiction. It is our responsibility to make sure our interventions do no harm and make the best use of our resources. Careful use of good science is critical to help us separate assumptions from facts, and to effectively break the cycle of poverty.

Filed under: Food and Science, Food News

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