One in 8 on food stamps; one in 4 kids

The NYT has a long article describing the rapid increase in utilization of food stamps in the US – one in four kids is currently on food stamps; one in 8 citizens overall.  This is depressing and distressing for a number of reasons.  First, in an absolute sense food is pretty cheap.  Most staples can still be had for under a dollar per pound; it takes maybe 1.5 pounds of staple food per person per day to feed a person; so two dollars per person per day or maybe $700 per person per year could do the job if necessary, and $1000 should be workable with effort.  If people are having a hard time coming up with 3 dollars a day for food, that suggests that the level of hardship in the country is pretty extreme.  It also suggests that the social contract has pretty much broken down – for reasons of age I have only dim recollections of the Cold War, but I seem to remember that the ability of our economy to feed our people was a basic bragging point that was held over the eastern bloc.

As I’ve noted here before, this sort of data triggers in crunchy types a reflexive instinct to go out and grow some food.  Unfortunately, (and also as discussed here), there are serious practical limitations that constrain the possible food-production impact of urban and even most sub-urban casual gardening.  To grow serious food you need land measured in acres, or at least solid fractions of an acre.  For instance, an acre of apple trees can produce 20,000lb of apples a year.  This is seems like a lot, but the calories in 20,000 lb of apples feeds a modest 6-7 people for a year.

The speed with which financial turmoil turns into large-scale food poverty got me thinking about a basic, fundamental problem with an affluent consumer society – in a system where the majority of the things that people buy are frivolous, luxury, or discretionary, it follows that most people will be employed doing things that nobody really needs.  And if the average person can halve their consumption without serious direct ill effect, the resulting system will be extremely vulnerable to failures of confidence.  All people have to do is cut back to the essentials they truly need, and they will automatically beggar their neighbors, and thus (by feedback) themselves. It’s ironic in a land of plenty, but it’s actually pretty easy to see how somebody whose training is in the decorative painting of fingernails could find themselves out of work and in danger of going hungry – and that seems to be basically what’s going on.  It might be reasonable advice for anybody in a frivolous field to quickly attain some kind of basic skills.

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One Response to “One in 8 on food stamps; one in 4 kids”

  1. Elisha Hinahon Says:

    I love your blog and will keep on reading

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