A Fatheaded Policy

Only in America can researchers lament the availability of inexpensive food. Instead of appreciating how amazing it is that America's poorest are too fat, a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research hints that minimum wages should be raised to take away Americans' access to abundant, cheap food.

According to the abstract, because of low minimum wage, people are able to consume cheaper, less healthy food. It concludes, "declining real minimum wage rates has contributed to the increasing rate of overweight and obesity in the United States," and further efforts should be made to "determine appropriate policy responses."

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One inappropriate policy response would be to raise the minimum wage. Doing so would, as the paper suggests, raise the price of food, removing the option of less-expensive food. Raising the minimum wage would also decrease employment. (As Mackinac Center Labor Policy Director Paul Kersey has noted, "the average estimate by labor economists is that for a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, employment among those affected drops by 5 percent.") Both of these changes would hurt, not help, poorer Americans.

Researchers may think it's unfortunate that many Americans choose processed foods over organic soy milk, but individuals have a right to make their own decisions and tradeoffs. If Americans wanted to spend more money on food, they could: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spend an average of 10 percent of their income on food. Even those in the $10,000 to $14,999 bracket spend just a quarter of their income on food. Compare that to the world's poorest, who spend up to 80 percent of their income on food — I'm sure the NBER researchers would find them appropriately slim.

Furthermore, cost may not be the primary factor in diet choices: The USDA found that "households with incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty line are likely to spend additional income on beef and frozen prepared foods, not fruit and vegetables."

Taken in a global and historical context, poor Americans' ability to be fat is nothing short of amazing. Increasing the minimum wage to raise the price of food and drive up unemployment would be a fatheaded move.