The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Food inequality: could diverging diets signal a coming wave of healthy eating?

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Locally grown chilis for sale in a farmers’ market in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

Or do they reflect compounding injustice?

Recent headlines have decried the growing food inequality in the US:

America’s growing food inequality problem

Wealth equals health when it comes to eating

The Food Gap Is Widening

The key finding was in this chart, which shows that richer people eat better and healthier than poorer people. And that richer people, over time are eating progressively better, while poorer people are not.

Source: http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1899558
Source: http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1899558

The idea that richer Americans eat healthier than poorer Americans isn’t surprising, but the finding that the rich and the poor are diverging is distressing. And the divergence fits a broader pattern that has alarmed the public in recent years: that the rich are getting ever richer, while poorer and middle class households aren’t.

Source: http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/Household-Income-Distribution.php
Source: http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/Household-Income-Distribution.php

But the differences in these charts might be important.

Angus Deaton talks about inequality as a positive phenomenon in his magisterial book on inequality, The Great Escape. The idea that rich people get benefits that the poor do not can be a signal of improvements that spread down to less poor people soon. Many benefits can only accrue to the very rich. Yacht ownership, for example, is likely to remain a privilege of the super rich forever. But some benefits are only accessible to the rich at the beginning, but then proliferate through other income classes through market mechanisms or through government action.

For example:

Source:  http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s10054.pdf
Source: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s10054.pdf

Deaton uses this graph, which shows how aristocratic English families achieved a significant improvement in life-expectancy starting in the 1750s (the black dots). Meanwhile, the general population had no improvement in life expectancy. Deaton argues that much of this improvement might be attributed to medical innovations and sanitation that were available, at first, only to the very wealthy. But after 1850, life expectancy for the general population also started an upward advance.

Deaton doesn’t argue that it’s fair that the rich get access to good things first, but he notes that divergences – or “escapes” as he describes them – are often shared broadly over time and a convergence occurs at a higher level. After inequality emerges, a great catch-up happens as lower income classes gain access to the things that only the rich had; technologies and economies of scale improve, prices for things like vaccines, indoor plumbing fall, and more and more people get access to what were previously luxuries.

So, could improved diet be such a case?  I think so.

On the surface, the chart showing improvements in diet looks a bit like the chart showing increases in income, but they aren’t the same. Income inequality is actually much more concentrated than dietary inequality. In the case of income, the bulk of the recent increase is not really in the top 20 percent, but in the very top 1 percent. The next 19 percent of people have experienced much more modest income growth. More specifically, we can also see that in the time frame of the diet study(1999 to the present) real income hasn’t grown, even for the top of the of the economic pyramid due to the Great Recession. So that would seem to show that income growth isn’t driving the dietary improvement.

Instead, dietary improvement seems more widespread. Both the highest and the middle class have experienced gains since 1999. The fact that the dietary gains are more broadly shared and have improved, even while real incomes have stagnated, tells us that there is something more complex going on than a simple connection between income and diet. The improvements might be connected to income, but not caused by them.

The diet study doesn’t tell us why diet is improving among richer people. Maybe richer people have access to better food? Maybe they are increasingly choosing to spend more of their income to buy healthier food? Maybe richer people live in areas where healthier food is increasingly available?  Perhaps there were policy changes that improved the access of richer people, but didn’t affect poorer people? If we can figure out what the causes are, it might mean that we can improve diet without having to improve incomes (since the latter is a lot harder and more expensive).

The fact that richer people eat better than poorer people is not fair, but not surprising. What is startling is that the divergence is growing. And since healthier diet is correlated with better health, this means richer people are becoming healthier while poor people are not.

But the correlation between changes in income and the changes in diet isn’t very good. It’s bad news that poor people’s diet is not improving. It’s good news for richer people that their diet is improving.  I’m optimistic that the good news might soon be shared more broadly, especially if we can discover the reason it’s changing. I think it’s a strong possibility these diet findings might be an example of an escape from bad diets, with a great catch-up to follow. Accelerating the catch up might be a good role for government and the food industry.

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