Home > modeling, news > The cost savings of food stamps cuts versus the cost increases of diabetes care

The cost savings of food stamps cuts versus the cost increases of diabetes care

December 4, 2013

As many of you are aware, food stamps were recently cut in this country. This has had a brutal effect on people and families and on neighborhood food pantries, which are being swamped with new customers and increased need among their existing customers.

One thing that I come away with when I read articles describing this problem is how often they detail individuals who have been diagnosed with diabetes but can no longer afford to pay for appropriate food for their condition.

As a person with a family history of diabetes, and someone who has been actively avoiding sugars and carbs to control my blood sugar for the past couple of years, I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for these struggling people.

Let me put it another way. Eating well in this country is expensive, and I’ve had to spend real money on food here in New York City to avoid sugary and fast carb-laden food. I don’t think I could have done that on a skimpy food budget. It’s especially hard to imagine budgeting healthy food on a withering food stamp budget.

Because here’s the thing, and it’s not a secret: shitty food is cheap. If I need to buy lots of food (read: calories) for a small amount of money, I can do it easily, but it will be hell for my blood sugar control. I’m guessing I’d be a full-blown diabetic by now if I were poor and on food stamps.

And that brings me to my nerd question of the morning. How much money are we really saving by decreasing the food stamp allowance in this country, if we consider how many more people will be diagnosed diabetic as a result of the decreased quality of their diet? And how many people’s diabetes will get worse, and how much will that cost?

It’s not over, either: apparently more cuts are coming over the next 10 years (maybe by $4 billion, maybe by $40 billion). And although diabetes care costs have gone up 40% in the last 5 years ($245 billion in 2012 from $174 billion in 2007), that doesn’t mean they won’t go up way more in the next 10.

I’m not an expert on how this all works, but the scale is right – we’re talking billions of dollars nationally, so not small potatoes, and of course we’re also talking about people’s quality of life. Never mind in a moral context – I’m definitely of the mind that people should be able to eat – I’m wondering if the food stamp cuts make sense in a dollars and cents context.

Please tell me if you know of an analysis in this direction.

Categories: modeling, news
  1. mb
    December 4, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Obama greatly expanded food stamp eligibilty. Many college kids qualify among others that really should not receive it- IF the goal is to help the poor (do you honestly believe you are not subsiding beer purchases with food stamps for college kids?) . I wonder whether you think rolling back the expansion rather than cuts would have been a better idea. I also know Obama expanded free lunch at school. My son (from a family that makes well into the six figures) gets a free lunch. Is that money that would have been better spent else where? Without a doubt. Expanding the welfare state, which seem to advocate, hurts the poor. Do you care?

    • December 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Well, personally I’d rather have my students drinking beer and eating food than not eating food and getting scurvy. But I note that many college students these days are adults returning to school, not teenagers living on parental subsidies.

    • kt
      December 5, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      To play devil’s advocate (!?) to your post, the much-vaunted Finnish school system gives every child a hot free lunch cooked on premises from nutritious foods. “The objective is to maintain and improve pupils’ health and well-being and to give them energy for their school work.” The cost of providing this is less than 8% of the cost of educating a student. The reasoning, as outlined in the government document provided, also includes ideas about nutrition education for students.

      http://www.oph.fi/download/47657_school_meals_in_finland.pdf

  2. December 4, 2013 at 9:45 am

    But do recipients merely use SNAP to buy larger quantities of crappy food?

    • FogOfWar
      December 4, 2013 at 7:43 pm

      That’s the real question–any data on point?

  3. pjm
    December 4, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Lots of points. The cuts to Food stamps are pointless and cruel.
    1) The budget does not need cutting, it needs expanding.
    2) The 40 billion (over 10 years) is peanuts. It is 5% of the program but it is .09% of federal outlays. I.e., it is hardly worth Congress attention except as symbolic politics.

    The food issues are very complex, especially since government recommendations on nutrition consist of lots speculation, but yes the food industry is built on cheap carbs and cheap fats (polyunsaturated rich vegetable oil, the health issues with considerable health risks for both).

    As a total aside, I think the science (and statistical analysis) about how the government nutritional recommendations came to be is fascinating, they are really much more contentious and speculative than people imagine. The big example, which Gary Taubes, Chris Masterjohn and Peter Attia all have great presentations on, is how the government came to adopt recommendations against saturated fat in the diet. To this day the evidence is really weak, weak to the point there has already been some official backtracking (WHO, the Swedish government) much like we’ve already seen with the CDC and salt (and for the same reasons, evidence mostly based on epidemiology and no clear experimental evidence). Anyone interested in statistics or experimental design should take a look.

  4. Anders Schneiderman
    December 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    You’re assuming the politicians cutting food stamps think in terms of dollars and sense. Too bad they don’t:
    http://www.psmag.com/health/unintentionally-defunded-national-institutes-health-70470/

    It’s the same kind of politics that in California used to lead to the R’s cutting prenatal care to lower government spending even though any back of the envelope calculation would show that it would increase govt spending.

    This is about stomping on the 99% & giving to the 1%, not about deficits or “smaller” government. It’s why I’m so glad folks like you helped create OWS.

  5. Josh
    December 4, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Tufts has a school of nutrition policy and science that might interest you. For example, this page has a simple model to compare food baskets to the ones in the USDA Thrifty Food Plan (on which food stamp benefits are based):

    http://nutrition.tufts.edu/research/thrifty-food-plan-calculator

    • December 4, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Beg to differ. the Thrift Food Plan has nothing to do with SNAP benefits. See http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligible-food-items

      • Joshua
        December 5, 2013 at 6:35 am

        I don’t quite understand. This is my attempt to reconcile (and all of this might be background info which is beside the point):
        From the link to CBPP in Cathy’s post (http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3899), the section paragraph under “Background on the Benefit Cut” talks about how benefit levels (in dollars) are being set down to the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan.

        My understanding of TFP is that it doesn’t mandate a particular consumption basket, but it assumes a basket and derives an associated cost.

        Your link talks about the limits on food eligibility for SNAP benefits which, from a quick glance, appears to differ from the TFP basket.

        • December 5, 2013 at 8:57 am

          This post (and your comment) assumes a qualitative difference in SNAP vs. no-SNAP diet. Evidence?

  6. December 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Looking only at the food stamps budget does not get to the root of the problem. Why is crappy food cheap? A lot of the answer has to do with economies of scale that come with industrial food processing, but much of it has to do with government subsidies. It seems to me that the least we can do is stop subsidizing crappy food, which makes it cheap. The federal government does this in a number of ways. Farm subsidies are an obvious way. A less obvious way is the transportation subsidies that make trucking food long distances more affordable than producing and consuming fresh food locally. It’s all part of a big interlocking system, and poking only on one obvious part of that system is not going to change anything. I think reducing the influence of the federal government moving to more local economies is the way forward.

  7. December 5, 2013 at 7:02 am

    In other countries, poor people are skinny. In the USA, poor people are fat.

  8. lace
    December 5, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Great article, thanks! “shitty food is cheap”. Absolutely…and profitable. So mass food companies can continue to send lobbying money to Washington to buy politicians.

  9. Dean
    December 5, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I suggest broadening the scope. How about comparing the cost of subsidizing corn (used partly to produce high fructose corn syrup) and wheat (refined carbs and grains) in relation to diseases of civilization (heart disease, obesity) and the cost of treating these diseases (prescription drugs, acute care).

    Foods derived from these ingredients are so pervasive because they are cheaper due to the subsidy.

    The effect of eating these foods is increased blood sugar which wreaks havoc on ones metabolism and blood sugar levels.

    Long term one is at higher risk for a whole range of medical problems, which require significant dollars to “treat” the symptoms with marginal results.

    Therefore, the cost of these two specific food subsidies is producing cheap, unhealthy food which in my opinion is a direct cause of the obesity epidemic and all of its related health problems.

    I believe this because I stopped consuming all HFCS, grains, refined carbs and processed foods 3 years ago. (I eat my fruits and veggies and lean proteins.) I’ve lost 50 pounds and my blood work is within ‘normal’ ranges.

  10. Uncle Bruno
    December 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

    It’s not about the money.

  11. Noni Mausa
    December 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    The general health of the poorest Americans is of interest if the people making the decisions care about the well-being of Americans.

    However, it is of little interest to those people who utilize the poorest Americans as a convenient labour and military pool. If those are the people making the decisions, then a large pool of workers who have little leverage, whose health is good enough for the first thirty years so and then falls off abruptly into conditions they cannot afford to treat, and who conveniently die young, is just the ticket. These workers won’t cost much in their unhealthy, early old age because they won’t get the treatment to keep them alive beyond their useful working life. Sick people are expensive, but deceased ones are cheap.

    I find it helpful to understand the focus of various policy and lobbying efforts in the light of these opposing motivations.

    Noni

  12. December 7, 2013 at 2:14 am

    Cathy,

    It makes sense on both a $ & cents basis and more.

    “So they have statistically significant quasi expermimental evidence that food stamps reduce dependency in the long run. This welfare program helps prevent the intergeneration transmission of poverty. Food stamps are now a demonstrably effective way to fight the culture of poverty” (snip)

    http://angrybearblog.com/2013/12/food-stamps-obesity-and-dependency.html#more-20229

    Love your blog. Thanks for what you do.

  13. JAFD
    December 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    You may want to read what George Orwell said in 1937 about this, in _The Road to Wigan Pier_. Still relevant.

  1. December 5, 2013 at 4:35 am
  2. December 5, 2013 at 9:23 am
  3. December 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm
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