Thursday, December 22, 2016

A consistent policy toward drug testing for recipients of USDA benefits

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) this week urged President-elect Donald Trump to allow Wisconsin to implement drug testing for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's leading anti-hunger program and the largest program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One could argue that this is a bad idea, because people in the grips of substance addictions can be as poor and hungry as anybody else. Moreover, SNAP is a household benefit, so it is not clear how benefit cuts based on one person's drug test would affect innocent children and other relatives in the same family. Remedies other than taking away their food may be the most humane approach to this social problem.

Alternatively, if the incoming administration values drug testing, we can all agree that any drug testing for recipients of USDA funding should be consistent and fair across the board. One could imagine:
  1. Drug testing for SNAP participants. In other social safety net programs, evidence suggests that millions of dollars can be wasted chasing very few positives. But, this was Governor Walker's proposal, so it stays on the list.
  2. Drug testing for participants in farm subsidy programs. A 2011 study reported: "Current alcohol use, smokeless tobacco use, inhalant use, and other illicit drug use were more prevalent among high school-aged youths living on farms than among those living in towns." To be consistent with the household character of the SNAP drug tests, the testing would certainly include teenagers in the farm families. The Environmental Working Group shows 1995-2014 USDA payments to Wisconsin farmers of $7.6 billion. Surely, only a small fraction of this sum is spent on illegal drugs, but even a small fraction can add up.
One suspects that this consistent drug testing policy would find less support in the U.S. Congress. 

If Governor Walker's proposal fails to gain traction, perhaps Congress will then turn to more imaginative ways of reducing despair and hopelessness, and increasing prosperity and food security, for all recipients of USDA funding.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The nutrition title in the next farm bill

Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has my new commentary: "The Nutrition Title’s Long, Sometimes Strained, but Not Yet Broken, Marriage with the Farm Bill."

It describes the divergent budgetary forecasts for two major safety net programs, with falling spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and rising spending for the much larger Medicaid program.

Source: Author’s computations based on Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 2016.
Note: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

There are two different conclusions that lawmakers could draw from these trends:
On the one hand, as they plan the next farm bill, legislators may accept falling SNAP costs and rising Medicaid costs, on grounds that the funding lost from SNAP still is going toward another important safety net program. On the other hand, legislators could reason that preventing poor nutrition and chronic disease makes more sense than treatment after the fact. From the latter perspective, providing extra resources for SNAP to address unhealthy eating and diet-related chronic disease may be a worthwhile investment if it slows the growth of Medicaid costs.
What will happen next? We can only guess.
In most past cycles, congressional debate over the farm bill was comparatively less partisan than debate over other legislation. This changed in the 2014 farm bill, as legislators concerned about the federal budget deficit challenged the traditional bipartisan support for farm programs, and criticism of SNAP had a more partisan character than usual. To reduce partisan tensions over this issue, Congress established a national commission on hunger in the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill. The commission’s final report was released in January, 2016 (National Commission on Hunger, 2015). The report places substantial emphasis on employment and training programs and requirements, and it proposes to exclude a narrowly defined class of sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility, which is a provision likely to be opposed by SNAP’s supporters in anti-hunger organizations. At the same time, the report describes SNAP’s overall success in reducing the rates of household food insecurity and hunger in the United States.
In the next farm bill, it is uncertain whether to expect a renewal of the rancorous and partisan argument over the nutrition title. The commission’s report may serve as a roadmap for a less divisive nutrition title, if lawmakers seek such a thing.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The scale of SNAP (food stamp) spending relative to other budget priorities

Multiple social media friends recently shared a fall 2015 chart from an organization called "The Other 98%" (slogans: "kicking corporate asses for the working classes" and "we didn't start the class war, but we're going to end it").

I like the chart's implied message. In my own words: "The United States should seek to advance peace, reduce military spending, pursue economic justice, and support programs that promote food security."

But, the chart badly botches the details, showing SNAP (food stamp) spending as a minuscule portion of federal spending, "somewhere within the tiny orange sliver at the bottom," less than 1% of federal spending, and therefore less than 1/57th as large as the military budget that takes most of the pie.

In a democracy, we don't all need to be budget experts, but I highly recommend that every voter take just the 10 minutes needed to understand some basics about the federal budget. I like the clear "Federal Budget 101" provided by the National Priorities Project. Here are 4 items from that website that help in interpreting the chart above.

1. The total budget was about $3.8 trillion in 2015. Military spending was $598 billion (16% of the total). SNAP spending (part of "everything else") was $74 billion (2% of the total). Therefore, SNAP spending is 1/8th as large as military spending.

2. Federal spending can be divided into "mandatory spending" (65%, including SNAP and many other programs whose annual spending follows rules that were decided when the program was authorized) and "discretionary spending" (29%, including military spending and many other programs whose annual spending is mainly decided by appropriations each year).

3. Military spending is a large part of discretionary spending (which, in turn, is 29% of the total budget). The Other 98%'s chart shows discretionary spending -- as noted in the text underneath the Facebook post above. It agrees closely with the numbers from the National Priorities Project. However, The Other 98% is wrong to say that the small "Food and Agriculture" slice contains SNAP.

4. Social security and medical costs make up a large fraction of mandatory spending (which, in turn, is 65% of the total budget). SNAP ($74 billion) and mandatory farm subsidy programs are both included within the yellow food and agriculture slice ($122.6 billion) of this chart -- not the food and agriculture slice of the preceding discretionary chart.

To summarize, the military budget ($598 billion) is about 8 times as big as the SNAP or food stamp budget ($74 billion). For many readers, there never was any reason for the original Facebook post to indulge in misrepresentation, confusion, or error. These accurate numbers would have been sufficient to motivate the main rhetorical argument: "The United States will be better off if we pursue peace, reduce military spending, promote justice, and ensure enough food for all people in our community."

I hope this time was useful to you in a small way (to understand a quibble with the Facebook post) and a big way (to comprehend the broad outlines of how our government spends our money).

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Some in Massachusetts are concerned with animal welfare and yet not voting for Ballot Measure #3

In a commentary for WBUR this week, my faculty colleagues Will Masters and Jennifer Hashley write about Massachusetts Ballot Measure #3, which would ban the sale in Massachusetts of eggs, pork, and veal from confined production methods.

This debate is commonly described as a tension between animal welfare goals and protecting poor people from higher prices. Masters and Hashley actually speak favorably about the animal welfare goals, and even say that in principle more humane production practices could be accomplished at reasonable cost (assuming the right supports), but they say in practice the Massachusetts initiative generates too much concern about higher prices right now.

They write:
The more we understand Ballot Question 3, the more vexing the choice appears. From our long experience with U.S. agriculture and food policy, we know that America’s diverse and resilient farms could potentially deliver improved animal welfare without harming access to low-cost, convenient and nutritious eggs. But we also know that this won’t happen automatically. If government remains on the sidelines, a yes vote on Question 3 would bring unacceptable price rises.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Baylen Linnekin: "Biting the Hands That Feed Us"

In Biting the Hands that Feed Us (Island Press, 2016), food lawyer Baylen Linnekin offers a libertarian appeal for reduced food regulations.

Like many such books, Linnekin reviews a long littany of well-meaning business people whose enterprises were thwarted by silly rules and regulations that fail to serve a sound public purpose: small "salumi" makers (sort of like salami) who are told to use preservatives in their cured meats; artisinal cheese makers who are told not to use wooden boards for aging cheese; fishermen who must discard "bycatch" to comply with harvest rules; and local farmers who are prevented from selling off-size tomatoes or who suffer under the fixed costs of compliance with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

A couple features favorably distinguish this book from others in the same vein. Linnekin's appreciation for small and artisinal producers is heartfelt, in contrast with others who might use complaints about regulation implicitly to breeze over shortcomings in the current conventional industrialized food system. Linnekin's main thesis is that rules too often harm sustainable production strategies. As one might hope, Linnekin takes a completely consistent and highly critical libertarian view of "Ag Gag" laws, which risk preventing private individuals from honestly reporting how food really is produced. I could not help being pleased with Linnekin's coverage of checkoff programs, including a citation to some coverage from this blog.

In the end, though, I think Linnekin understates the genuine public interest motivation for many rules and regulations. With any proposed food safety policy, there is risk of both Type I error (prohibiting an economic action that would not in fact have caused an illness) and Type II error (failing to prevent an illness that we should have prevented). I see the struggle to get this balance right as fundamental to U.S. food safety policy. The fact that Linnekin can recount examples of regulations that failed to correctly judge a particular producer falls far short of persuading a reader of his broader point.

In his final chapter, though without using these terms, Linnekin wrestles with precisely this challenge of getting the balance of Type I and Type II correct. As I would paraphrase the argument, he feels one can distinguish the right regulatory policies by: (a) promoting sustainability, (b) enforcing standards for food safety outcomes, not food safety processes, (c) avoiding any favor for large producers over small producers, and (d) ending farm subsidies. I don't think this four-part screen is sufficient to strike the right balance. For example, deciding when to regulate outcomes and when to regulate processes is complicated. In many cases, it is far more straightforward to regulate the temperature at which food must be held than to regulate microbial counts on the product.

Overall, though I liked the book, I doubt Linnekin is right to call so broadly for regulatory retrenchment. We have endured decades now of strong attacks in the U.S. Congress on regulatory agencies, using sharp anti-government rhetoric, including many of the same libertarian themes that Linnekin highlights. Even if Linnekin does devote one chapter to regulations he does support -- which not every such author would do -- this does not suffice to give the book as a whole a full balance.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

In 2015, 12.7% of U.S. households were food insecure, and 4.2% of respondents reported hunger

According to the annual USDA report, released moments ago, 12.7% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2015, an improvement from 14.0% the previous year.

Households were classified as food secure or food insecure, based on their responses to a set of questions about food-related hardship.

In 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, the rate of household food insecurity was 14.6%. In 2012, the most recent presidential election year before the current year, the rate of household food insecurity was 14.5%.

Although it is sometimes said that USDA no longer measures "hunger," this is not really true. One of the clearest statistics in USDA's report each year is the simple question (buried deep in the statistical appendix) about whether the household respondent had been "hungry" at some point in the previous year due to not having enough resources for food. Just 4.2% reported hunger in 2015, down from 4.8% the previous year.

Even with the recent improvement, the United States has fallen terribly far short of national goals for improving food security. There is no fundamental economic or physical barrier preventing our country from achieving lower rates of food insecurity and hunger.

Graph by the author. Data source: USDA (2016).

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Berkeley "soda tax" reduced sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and increased water consumption

In the American Journal of Public Health this month, Jennifer Falbe and colleagues found that the penny-per-ounce Berkeley soda tax succeeded in reducing sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption.

The study asked respondents about soda intake, in Berkeley and in comparison cities of northern California (Oakland and San Francisco, which did not have a new tax), before and after the new Berkeley tax was implemented in March 2015. The findings were remarkable. SSB consumption fell 21% in Berkeley and rose 4% in the comparison cities during the same period.

The SSBs include caloric soda, of course, but also some kinds of other sweetened drinks. However, for various reasons (including sound nutrition reasons plus perhaps political reasons), the tax did not affect milk drinks or 100% fruit juice. Therefore, it is important to understand what other beverages people substituted for soda. The study does not answer all my questions on this point, but it did find that water consumption increased in Berkeley at the same time that SSB consumption fell. Water consumption increased 63% in Berkeley, significantly more than the increase in the comparison cities during the same period. This was reassuring.

A good way to standardize estimates of tax effects is to report an "elasticity" -- the percentage change in consumption for each 1% change in price. A typical elasticity estimate for soda is about -1.2, meaning that the price increase in Berkeley (about 8%) would have been expected to generate a consumption decline of about 10%. The authors took care to confirm that the estimated consumption decline of 21% was significantly different from zero, which is the standard statistical way of making sure the estimates were not a random statistical fluke, but they cannot really be sure the true impact is exactly 21% rather than 10%. They sensibly discussed the possibility that "early reaction to the tax ... could rebound and settle closer to a 10% reduction in consumption."

Even if the impact were a 10% reduction, this study has important public health implications, providing I think the strongest evidence so far that a tax would reduce SSB consumption.

I encourage my colleagues in agricultural and applied economics to read this study. There is a long tradition in my profession of doubting the potential impact of such taxes. In the Washington Post in 2015, Tamar Haspel quoted University of Minnesota applied economist Marc Bellemare saying the results at that time were "not robust." Haspel also quoted my Friedman School colleague and friend Sean Cash saying that product formulation, rather than taxes, are the way to go: "If we could achieve a 5 percent reduction by reformulation, that would swamp what we can achieve with consumer-level intervention.” The TuftsNOW site quoted Sean casting further doubt on taxes: "All studies suggest that for food in general, we’re not particularly responsive to price." Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk, who also is president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has blogged several times about soda taxes, agreeing with most of the Tamar Haspel column  in the Washington Post, and concluding stridently: "I'm sorry, but if my choice is between nothing and a policy that is paternalistic, regressive, will create economic distortions and deadweight loss, and is unlikely to have any significant effects on public health, I choose nothing" (emphasis added).

In the Salt this week, NPR reporter Dan Charles quotes Berkeley researcher Kristine Madsen on whether the new estimates of SSB reduction are large enough to matter for public health. "Madsen says a 20 percent reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages would be enough to reduce rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in years to come. 'This would have a huge public health impact if it were sustained,' she says." I think most experts in public health nutrition would agree with Madsen's assessment.

This week, Jayson's blog post on the Berkeley study raises some measurement issues, but recognizes that these issues are unlikely to overturn the main result. He writes, "All that said, I'm more than willing to accept the finding that the Berkeley city soda tax caused soda consumption to fall. The much more difficult question is: are Berkeley residents better off?" This is a question that surely will be discussed heavily in the next couple years as more municipalities experiment with such policies.