Friday, February 03, 2006

Musings on “Class” in America

I love to tell myself that I have a dynamic, complex outlook on politics, economics, and philosophy; it makes me feel good to self-congratulate that way. I suspect, though, that everyone that disagrees with me thinks the same of their own viewpoints.

One person out there that I sometimes disagree with but enjoy reading is Shakespeare’s Sister. I’ll admit it – I first found her page when looking up some stuff on Ms. Woolf. I will also admit to being an infrequent reader.

Anywhoo, I dipped in today and found this article, Food for Thought, which got me to thinking about two of my personal peeves. First, the discussion of ‘class’ in America and the unspoken assumption that ‘poor’ equals ‘urban Blacks’. Second, the contention that the government should solve, well, whatever.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the article first. Shakes (as she is referred to) writes:

“Health is a class issue. We’re all very understanding about the disparity in healthcare between the upper/middle and lower classes, but we seem not to be quite so keyed in to some fundamental challenges facing low income families when it comes to a disparity in nutrition and the availability of healthy foods.”

Sociologist use economics as a guide to ‘class’, but I personally feel the term is too loaded to be used in other contexts. While it can mean just ‘arbitrary divisions based on income’ (like ‘middle class’) it usually connotes concepts of inequality in social status and political power. My biggest issue, though, it that it usually used in a manner that contends that people with similar economic situations do/should/must share political affiliation. I find this very troubling, as if there is a poor person’s party and a rich person’s party, etc. I’ll discuss this more below.

Shakes goes on:

“We’ve likely all heard the term “white flight” that is associated with whites moving out of cities and into the suburbs, and during that time, most cities experienced a “supermarket flight,” too—a phenomenon that has been studied and/pr noted by sociologists, urban planners, politicians, and community leaders concerned about the lack of access to affordable, high-quality and healthy food for inner city residents”

Ba-ding – we have smoothly segued from speaking of ‘class’ to ‘low income families’ to ‘inner city residents’ who are by implication Blacks. In two paragraphs it is clearly spoken and implied that one class is middle/upper income suburban Whites, another is lower income urban Blacks. These stereotypes are pervasive and pernicious.

When you see media depictions of poverty in America in the media it is all too easy for the faces of urban minorities to be shown. The reasons are simple; they live near the media outlets, they are also close to universities (meaning they are more studied as ‘the poor’ – see the two studies cited by Shakes), and underlying stereotypes held by the media.

Yes, stereotypes. You see, most poor people aren’t minorities and aren’t urban.

About 37 million Americans live below the poverty line. Of these, 25 million, or 67.5%, are White non-Hispanics. And of all those in poverty, about 25 million live in rural areas. Rural poor have less access to housing and healthcare than urban poor. The rural poor also have less access to social services, education and educational assistance, and virtually no access to public transportation.

Food insecurity is about equal between rural and urban poor. The rural poor have about as much difficulty locating healthy food as the urban poor and rates of obesity are similar. Add in that the rural poor are more likely to be working parents, and there is some concern that poor children in rural areas eat less well than urban poor children.

OK, so I think I’ve made my first point; poverty is not a racial issue. While the percentages of poverty vary by race, absolute numbers are pretty egalitarian. Since more poor live in rural areas, poverty is also not an urban issue. The definitions of blue collar work and white collar work are breaking down (if they were ever valid in the first place) so poverty is not associated with a particular type of work. Lastly, economic mobility in America is alive, well, and common, meaning that people can and do leave poverty, preventing poverty from being a clan or family issue.

So. While access to healthy food may be an issue associated with poverty, the poor (not being united by race, occupation, urban/rural living, economic or social rigidity, or blood) are not a ‘class’ of people.

While this may seem trivial, I think that the use of ‘classist’ language is dangerous. Not just for the usual “no class warfare” reasons, but because I fear that the result is stereotyping; if I am ‘poor’ I can become wealthy, but if I am ‘of that class’ is that something I can ever change? In my experience the word ‘class’ carries implications of hierarchy, and I do not think anyone is ‘above’ or ‘below’ anyone else. Thus, I resent the use of the term.

My other issue with the piece is the assumption that ‘the government’ should fix… well, whatever it is that is going on. From the comments, the Disgruntled Chemist wrote:

“The government is, quite simply, failing that woman who only has access to city bus service once a week, who can't afford to go grocery shopping and can't afford decent groceries when she gets there.”

To which Shakes replied:

“Absolutely. This is an issue with which I've been familiar for some time for various reasons, but in reading through many of the studies done again today and so many stories like Mrs. Morris', I was left in tears. We're failing so many people, so completely, on the most basic level - a lack of healthy food and water, and then, when the inevitable health problems occur, a lack of decent healthcare. And meanwhile, Congress just cut the budget for necessary services in exactly that vein today.”

Excuse me? Since when is it the government’s responsibility to give you a ride? I like public transportation, I’ve routinely used public transportation. Public transportation is a local government issue decided by local politicians. I have no idea what Congress has to do with that. Routes are based on usage and cost, normally. While I am sure that the city would love to run buses everywhere at all times, I suspect that such profligacy would cost so much it would eat into those “necessary services” she mentions.

I am also appalled by the linked article about government opening supermarkets for the poor. If they are as well-managed as the Corps of Engineers, look out! Especially since the end result would probably be the government telling recipients of public assistance where to shop, and then controlling what is available, with the result that the government controls what you can and can’t eat ‘for your own good’.

You really want to make healthy food cheaper? Get the government out of the food business! Federal farm subsidies raise food prices about $25 billion a year. The most direct of these are programs that restrict imports, limit production, and even have the government buying food and then letting it rot , all to purposefully drive food prices up. In the late 1960’s American farmers were losing market share and the Department of Agriculture (among others) was tasked with a way of using more farm waste. The result was high fructose corn syrup, which is heavily subsidized by the government. Thus, it is used in darn near every processed food out there. Since HFCS seems to be a trigger for obesity, the result is that processed food is cheaper and less healthy – all because someone demanded the government “step in and do something!”.

In other words, if you want to make food cheaper, get rid of the government programs that increase the prices of most produce. And if you want to make inexpensive food healthier, end the government subsidies that make fats and sweeteners plentiful and cheap. Since the majority of government subsidies go to large agribusiness, this would also allow more local farm coops and independent farmers sell directly to local stores, actually reducing distribution costs so that those small stores can afford a wider variety or products without the huge pre-orders the chains use to get such concessions.

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