Expert Commentary

Connection between social welfare participation, gender and obesity

2010 study from Duke University on links between poverty, government assistance and health problems in the United States.

The United States has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, and the primary causes — unhealthy diets and a lack of exercise — are well known. However, the social, economic, psychological and policy factors underlying the problem are less clear.

A 2010 study from Duke University, “Getting Fat on Government Cheese: The Connection Between Social Welfare Participation, Gender and Obesity in America” (PDF), analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assess the health outcomes of women participating in the government Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

The study’s findings include:

  • Women of all socio-economic statuses, ages, and races, have a consistently higher rate of obesity compared to men (a 4-6% difference over the last 10 years.) In the lowest income quartile, nearly 16% more women are obese than men.
  • On average, food stamps are provided annually to 4.5 million more women than men.
  • The average food stamp benefit received by individuals is the equivalent of $21 per person per week, which means there is a food budget of $3 per day to buy well-rounded, healthy food. The ability to receive benefits is unstable for many and depends on demonstrated financial need; benefits are issued on a monthly basis — a long interval that may leave gaps in available funds for families.
  • Because welfare benefits are no longer guaranteed for any extended period, many women in poverty live in a perpetual state of “food insecurity.” This “promotes obesity by encouraging overconsumption in anticipation of future caloric shortfalls.”
  • Many of the participants in the food stamps program live in “food deserts”: urban or rural communities where retail stores have extremely limited options in terms of healthy food. Some 25% of food stamps participants do not have easy access to a supermarket.
  • Under welfare-to-work reforms enacted in 1996, an adult recipient must have 30 hours a week of “work activity” to receive these benefits. Because many women are single with children and thus have limited time, this work obligation may limit their ability to travel to find nutritional foods, prepare healthy meals for themselves and their families, and exercise.

The study concludes that government welfare programs should be reassessed “to eliminate the obesity-inducing food insecurity, temporal poverty, and unhealthy food selection” that they currently promote.

Tags: children, consumer affairs, gender, nutrition, poverty, inequality, rural

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