Opinion: Junk food and hours of Xbox are poor measures of progress

The Heritage Foundation published a report last week suggesting the living conditions of poor Americans are improving. Among the evidence cited is the fact that poor children today are on their way to being 10 pounds heavier on average than the GI’s who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II. Such “super-nourished” kids are a sign of improvement, the report claims.


 Across the nation, the increased numbers of heavy, low-income children is actually translating into an obesity epidemic with dire medical consequences.  Here in California, one in three overweight children are at higher risk for a number of serious health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, a lifelong disease barely seen in kids a generation ago.

The spike in overweight children who live in poverty is fueled largely by their surroundings.

Low-income families often have little access to healthy foods or to places for safe physical activity, a deficiency that affects people of all ages. Adults living in neighborhoods with low access to healthy food are 20 percent more likely to be obese, increasing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Excessive time spent watching TV or playing video games is another factor in the hazardous trend of “super-nourished,” “super-sized” children. But remarkably, the Heritage report touts levels of video game and big screen TV ownership in poor households as additional indicators of their well-being.

According to government statistics cited in the report, poor Americans are only about 10 percent less likely to own a big screen TV than Americans overall, and only slightly less likely to own a video game system.

Common sense should tells us there are far better ways to measure the well-being of families living in poverty today than counting TVs, Xboxes, and pounds of fat, especially given an obesity epidemic rooted in inactivity and high calories. The conversation should begin with the increased number of families experiencing shortages of quality food during this economic downturn.

The Heritage report itself acknowledges families living in poverty are 20 percent less likely to have had enough food to eat over the past four months than Americans overall. And even among those who had enough to eat, the poor were twice as likely as others to not have access to the food they would like to be serving to their families.  Even the report’s authors recognize the poor may have to “temporarily eat cheap food.”

Counting the number of healthy food outlets in low-income neighborhoods is one way to measure the problem.  Low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer full-service supermarkets than middle-income areas, leaving residents dependent on fast-food outlets and convenience stores where produce is as rare as high-calorie snacks are common.

Restrictions on outdoor activities only add to the problem. Many poor areas lack access to safe parks free of the threat of violence in the best of times. But the ongoing budget woes have made things worse, especially in California, where 70 state parks and dozens more city parks and playgrounds are threatened by the budget axe.

Perhaps the most sobering measurement of all those omitted from last week’s report is the correlation between poor surroundings and shorter life expectancy.  

In Oakland, residents in the lowest income census tracts die 15 years earlier than their neighbors in higher income census tracts. When my colleague Dr. Tony Iton was the director of public health in Oakland, he used to say: “Give me your address and I’ll tell you how long you’ll live.” Taking a hard look at what’s behind this gap in life expectancy makes more sense than simply counting the TVs, video games, or the calories from junk food that contribute to shortened life spans.

I know my colleagues at Heritage aren’t saying there is no poverty in America.  It’s true, as well, that people living in the margins sometimes make the wrong choices with big consequences.  

But Heritage’s laundry list of the poor’s access to modern conveniences, like TVs and dishwashers, should not be a distraction. Let’s keep our focus on the real challenge at hand: effectively responding to struggling families’ needs, which are growing as fast as our ability to address them is shrinking.

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