Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Disciplining the poor through the market

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One of the most striking features about the way the poor are disciplined in the United States is the total banality of it all. For an example, let’s take a look at the 2014 Farm Bill and regulations proposed in February 2016 by the USDA for the implementation thereof.

Prior to the 2014 Farm Bill, in order to qualify as a SNAP retailer, a merchant needed to carry three varieties of each of four categories of staple foods: meat, fish, and poultry; bread and cereals; fruits and vegetables; and dairy products. The February regulations define these as “foods used primarily for home preparation and consumption that provide the main sources of nutrition intake for households.” Retailers also needed to carry perishable foodstuffs in two of these categories.

The 2014 Farm Bill amended these requirements to from three to seven varieties of each type of staple food, as well as increasing the categories where perishables were required from two to three. The rules further require a minimum stock of six of each variety. This amendment was presented as making a larger stock of fresh food, particularly fruits and vegetables, a requirement for a store to accept SNAP benefits.

The regulations marched to this beat, as well. Previously, “foods with multiple ingredients [were] only be counted in one staple food category, based on the main ingredient, when determining retailer eligibility… For example, the main ingredient in some frozen chicken pot pies is bread and in others the main ingredient is chicken; therefore, one brand of chicken pot pie might be categorized in the bread or cereals category and another brand of chicken pot pie might be categorized in the meat, poultry or fish category.”

Perhaps you see where this hand-wringing over chicken pot pie is going. In seeking to avoid the Pot Pie Conundrum, the February regulations declared that multiple ingredient foods can’t be counted at all towards any of the categories. “Multiple ingredient foods include frozen entrees and prepared sandwiches, prepared salads, and pizza,” it helpfully explains. But, wait, what about yogurt with fruit at the bottom? “These foods do not include such items as yogurt, cheeses, and cereals as the primary staple ingredient is clearly represented and easily recognized.” Ah, of course. The ‘easily recognized’ standard is one that clearly won’t be problematic in the future.

Also no longer countable towards the suddenly inflated stock requirements are so-called accessory foods, a category that includes snack foods, cookies, pastries, Tastykakes, coffee, tea, condiments, or anything a human being might find even remotely enjoyable.

The logic to the Farm Bill and its accompanying regulations, presumably, is that merely having a higher stock of fresh food at authorized retailers will entice these horrible poor people with their welfare to eat better, because they can’t be trusted to do so themselves, and besides they are gross and poor and fat. This, of course, makes little sense at all. SNAP participants are less likely to experience obesity than the average American, and there is no reason to think that merely stocking food will lead people to purchase it.

A major reason for poor nutrition, and not just among the officially poor, is the high price of healthy food. Regardless of their proximate availability, costly fresh fruits and vegetables will get ignored for the cheap stuff in the other aisle regardless of regulations, and understandably so. Americans all eat a ton of crap; our diets are pretty terrible, regardless of socioeconomic status, and price and access play a role in that, along with a host of other factors.

For our part, reflexive opposition to agricultural subsidies is misplaced; instead of subsidizing less, we should be subsidizing smarter by giving money to farmers who grow food that isn’t total garbage and using those subsidies to incentivize better conservation techniques.

Sadly, however, even with lower prices, food provision remains beholden to market forces. The lack of an income base in poor communities—results of capital flight, racism, labor market restructuring, and other such interrelated miseries—means low profit potential, which in turn means that large supermarket chains and big-box retailers will often simply not enter into the market in these communities.

As a result, small corner stores are often the only accessible food retailers in poor communities; they are very often reliant upon customers’ SNAP benefits to stay afloat. While there are vague protections for areas like food deserts, the regulations provide no clarification on how they will be wielded. The additional stocking requirements imposed by the Farm Bill and accompanying regulations will impose a further burden upon these small merchants, threatening already low margins.

The result will be forcing a combination of their labor costs down (thus cutting jobs) and their prices up (thus cutting into the real value of SNAP dollars in these communities), insofar as they can remain in business at all. It is worth wondering where the ultimate goal of this is to help the big-boxes gobble up an even greater market share, because that appears to be the inevitable result. After all, the only available data on SNAP usage, leaked through a FOIA accident, showed that big-box retailers like Walmart were beginning to vacuum up more than more SNAP dollars in Massachusetts over the years 2006 to 2009.

All of this comes due to the commodification of food provision; should we be surprised that the Marxian contradiction between use- and exchange-value once more rears its ugly head? Some communities have subsidized big-box retailers through incentives such as tax breaks or enterprise zones where they can ignore all labor regulations; insofar as they do not fail utterly, these provisions represent one step forward followed by two hefty steps back, as with any market solution.

Instead, perhaps it is worth considering whether providing fresh, healthy food to everyone should be a public good. If so, let us remove it altogether from the dictates of capital flows and markets. Fresh food for all!

Note: These regulations are still open for public comment, which you can do here.

Written by David Kaib

April 8, 2016 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] process. The requirements for retailers to accept SNAP should be made contingent not on the size and diversity of inventory a store carries, but rather upon how how that retailer treats its […]

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