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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Walmart & fat people

The Ottawa Citizen is carrying a story today about a study done at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro that claims to conclusively prove that Walmart is responsible for making poor people fat.
Two economists tracked extensive health and population data between 1996 and 2005, a period in which 1,569 supercentres — which sell groceries along with household products — opened across the U.S.

Of Walmart's 323 stores in Canada, 119 are supercentres.

The researchers found that one new Walmart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store's opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren't obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.

"I think the most obvious story is that Walmart lowers the price of foods and a lot of the foods it has big price advantages on are the processed, inner-aisle types of food that aren't that good for you," said Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"It's not just about Walmart underselling the competitor. It's about the competitors cutting their prices in response to competition from Walmart. Someone might never step foot in a Walmart, but they still might pay less for their food."

Women, low-income families and people living in less densely populated areas are those most likely to put on weight after the arrival of a supercentre, according to Courtemanche and his co-author, Art Carden at Rhodes College.

The researchers incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could not have explained the weight gain.

While the most obvious explanation is that cheaper food leads to more eating, Courtemanche said further research is needed to determine the exact connection between Walmart supercentres and obesity. It could be a combination of diet and exercise, he said, noting that their previous research has shown Walmart's product offerings influence leisure activities — with people buying and watching more DVDs, for instance, after a Walmart moves into town and offers them cheaply.

It's also possible that prices drop more steeply on processed foods than they do on fresh fruit and vegetables after Walmart's arrival, he suggested. Previous research has estimated that Walmart causes prices to drop by between eight and 27 per cent across the board, he said.

"We don't want people to look at this and immediately say Walmart is evil. We want people to realize this is one of many things that are going on, and maybe some are good and some are bad," he said. "Certainly our results should not be taken as, 'Ban all Walmarts.' It's part of a very broad debate."
I find this study infuriating on a number of levels. From the purely scientific perspective, it sets off a number of alarm bells. Correlation does not imply causation; the opening of a Walmart Supercentre in a community and the rise of obesity rates are not necessarily connected. Followers of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster poke fun at this logical fallacy with their dogma that the declining number of pirates since 1800 is the cause of global warming, which of course is also a statistical correlation. The Walmart researchers claim that they "incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could not have explained the weight gain", but I'm still skeptical. The full paper is here if you want to wade through the statistics, but I'm not convinced that the rise in the obesity rate over the period under study is not a result of, say, a general society-wide increase in sedentary life-styles which is independent of the increase in the number of Walmart Supercentres.

But that's not the aspect of the study that I find most annoying; it's the conclusion that Walmart's business model of "everyday low prices" should be inaccessible to poor people. It would be far better, goes the thinking, if food prices were kept artificially high because then the poor couldn't afford to overeat. They would be kept in an environment of artificial food shortage and therefore on a more restrictive diet, and those nasty pounds would just melt away. After all, it was rare to find obese peasants working in the dirt around the manor house in the 14th Century when food for them was a luxury.

And those cheap DVDs that the grubby slobs love to buy at Walmart and then take home to watch on the sofa while stuffing their pie holes with Cheetos? Remember the good old days when the working stiffs staggered home from the mines and collapsed from exhaustion? No time for DVDs then, I'll bet. Wasn't the working class so wonderfully SLIM back then?

People like the authors of this study and the pundits who are tut-tutting over its conclusions don't trust poor people to make decisions with their own money. Bring a Walmart into their blighted neighbourhoods and they might spend the money they'd save on beer and popcorn instead of health-club memberships and triathlon entry fees. Heaven forbid! The peasants must be kept thin by inflating the cost of their food, and kept active by denying them sedentary leisure activities that would consequently only be available to their wealthier betters. I find this attitude despicable.

The arrival of a Walmart store in an economically depressed community is good for the poor. It lowers the cost of food, clothing and other necessities for already cash-strapped customers. Walmart hires low-skilled workers that would otherwise be unemployable. They pay corporate taxes to municipal governments with devastated industrial tax bases.

As Radley Balko pointed out at the Daily Beast:
The mere presence of a Wal-Mart in a community results in the equivalent of a 6.5 percent increase in annual income, which, as The Washington Post’s Sebastian Mallaby has pointed out, makes the store a bigger boon to the poor than the federal government’s food-stamps program. And Carden and Courtemanche began their study before Wal-Mart began its $4 prescription drug program, which also delivers a big potential health benefit both to Wal-Mart customers and other consumers in the area, because many competing stores were moved to implement similar programs.

...

Every time Wal-Mart tries to open a store in a big city like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, it encounters a storm of protest from politicians, labor unions and activist groups who claim to speak for the poor and low-wage workers. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the one-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants on L.A.’s south side to combat childhood obesity, also in 2004, backed a bill to keep Wal-Mart out of that same community.

In Chicago in 2006, a proposed Wal-Mart store met with fierce opposition from groups critical of its labor practices—a position just reiterated by Mayor Richard Daley. So instead, Wal-Mart opened in Evergreen Park, one block outside the Chicago city limits. The store received 24,500 job applications for just 325 positions, and now generates more than $1 million per year in taxes for the small town while boosting revenue for local businesses.

Had Chicago’s politicians not been so obstinate, that economic windfall could have been enjoyed by the city’s low-income, mostly minority Chatham neighborhood—whose residents might have dropped some pounds as well.
Walmart drives nanny-state liberals nuts. They would prefer that the poor and the working class be kept in a condition of dependence on the all-knowing government, and everyday low prices just don't fit the master plan. The modern Marie Antoinettes of the welfare state look down their noses at the fat proletariat outside the gates of Versailles and sneer "Don't let them eat cake".

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Walmart making poor people fat" A hundred years ago, poor people use to starve to death. Sounds like an improvment to me.


Fat Tony :)

Orlin said...

The researchers found that one new Walmart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store's opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren't obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.

So...The solution is to close all Wal*Marts to take disposable income away from Poor people. We know what's right for them: we'll starve them." Right? Just askin...

Philanthropist said...

That last line: "The modern Marie Antoinettes of the welfare state look down their noses at the fat proletariat outside the gates of Versailles and sneer "Don't let them eat cake"." is brilliant.

A few weeks ago Obama urged a heavy-set staffer to put down his choice of food and hit the salad bar instead. The media used it to show much he cared.

Madman said...

As usual, an excellent analysis, Eric. As someone in the Chicago 'burbs, I watched the Walmart fights in the city with much interest.

As you note, although the Walmart opponents profess to care, keeping Walmarts out helps keep the poor poor.