Our research, recently published in the journal Economics & Human Biology, examined this assumption by looking at who eats fast food using a large sample of random Americans. What we found surprised us: Poor people were actually less likely to eat fast food — and ate it less frequently — than those in the middle class. And the poor are only a little more likely to eat fast food than the rich.
In other words, the guilty pleasure of fast food is shared across the income spectrum, from rich to poor, with an overwhelming majority of every group reporting having indulged at least once over a nonconsecutive three-week period.
…What we learned from our research is that pretty much everyone has a soft spot for fast food. We analyzed a cross-section of the youngest members of the baby boom generation — Americans born from 1957 to 1964 — from all walks of life who have been interviewed regularly since 1979. Respondents were asked about fast-food consumption in the years 2008, 2010 and 2012 — when they were in their 40s and 50s.
…The data also show middle earners are more likely to eat fast food frequently, averaging a little over four meals during the three weeks, compared with three for the richest and 3.7 for the poorest.
Another problem with the stereotype about poor people and fast food is that by and large it’s not actually that cheap, in absolute monetary terms.
The typical cost per meal at a fast-food restaurant — which the US Census calls limited service — is over $8 based on the average of all limited service places. Fast food is cheap only in comparison to eating in a full-service restaurant, with the average cost totals about $15 on average.
Moreover, $8 is a lot for a family living under the US poverty line, which for a family of two is a bit above $16,000, or about $44 per day. It is doubtful a poor family of two would be able to regularly spend more than a third of its daily income eating fast food.
Many have argued that the poor don’t have access to healthy food. But as one writer notes,
Government data also shows that people on food stamps purchase soda (#1) and bag snacks (#4) at higher rates than non-SNAP households. It certainly seems possible that these unhealthy items are being purchased in larger quantities than they would absent food stamp (or “EBT”) income.
Now, there is an old argument that suggests that poor people eat unhealthy food because they cannot afford to eat healthy food. But I’ve always found this argument unpersuasive.
The America Farm Bureau Federation says the price of eggs, arguably the healthiest food on the planet, is $1.32 per dozen. Other highly nutritious foods – beans, rice, and bananas, to name a few – are similarly inexpensive. It seems more likely that most welfare recipients choose to eat unhealthy food because it’s easy (no prep), tastes good, is designed to be addictive, and they have the resources to buy large quantities of it thanks to their monthly government benefit.
Nonetheless, would access to healthier foods make a difference? Not really, according to the research. As Slate reports,
Obesity levels don’t drop when low-income city neighborhoods have or get grocery stores. A 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed no connection between access to grocery stores and more healthful diets using 15 years’ worth of data from more than 5,000 people in five cities. One 2012 study showed that the local food environment did not influence the diet of middle-school children in California. Another 2012 study, published in Social Science and Medicine, used national data on store availability and a multiyear study of grade-schoolers to show no connection between food environment and diet. And this month, a study in Health Affairs examined one of the Philadelphia grocery stores that opened with help from the Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The authors found that the store had no significant impact on reducing obesity or increasing daily fruit and vegetable consumption in the four years since it opened.
Earlier research suggesting that better fresh-food access improves diet and would therefore improve the health of people living in poverty was drawn from small samples or looked at store availability in narrow geographical slices—often without information about how or where the people who lived there shopped. “They never link the neighborhood characteristics to actual individuals,” explains Helen Lee, author of the Social Science and Medicine study. “Without that, all you have is speculation.”
Lee also notes in her study that, on closer inspection, food deserts don’t actually exist in the U.S., at least not as a national problem—on average, poor neighborhoods have more grocery stores than wealthier neighborhoods. Even before Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative was announced in 2010, studies suggested that the food desert explanation for obesity wasn’t right. A report from Department of Agriculture researchers presented to Congress in 2009 also showed more grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. In 2012, USDA researchers crunched the data again and found once more that low-income neighborhoods had more—not fewer—grocery stores.
What’s more, the poor ignore “proven weight-loss strategies, relying instead on quick fixes like diet pills.” As The Atlantic explains,
For a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from Concordia University looked at the incomes and health habits of more than 3,000 children and teens between the ages of 8 and 19 and more than 5,000 adults over the age of 20.
At least two-thirds of the study subjects reported attempting to reduce food intake or exercising in order to lose weight in the past year. Despite these efforts, the adults in the study gained an average of three pounds, while the youths gained about 12 pounds. The people in the lower income brackets gained about two pounds more than those in the highest one.
One reason for the disparity might have to do with the tactics they used to try to shed pounds: Compared to adults making $75,000 or more, those making less than $20,000 were 50 percent less likely to exercise, 42 percent less likely to drink a lot of water, and 25 percent less likely to eat less fat and sweets. And adults making between $20,000 and $75,000 were about 50 percent more likely to use over-the-counter diet pills, which aren’t proven to work.
The data for the young people were similar: The poorest among them were 33 percent less likely to exercise, but they were twice as likely to skip meals as the richest ones. Skipping meals, too, isn’t a sure-fire way to slim down.
The piece offers this more likely explanation:
…[I]t might be that the stressful lives of poor people make sticking to a diet and exercise plan more difficult. It’s hard to exercise when you live in an unsafe neighborhood. Stress leads to emotional eating. You can’t plan for gym time when you only know your work schedule three days in advance.
An emerging body of research helps explain how the stress of poverty hampers the decision-making process. A study in Science last year found that poverty equates to a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points. Another study just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who experienced economic uncertainty gave up on solving a difficult puzzle faster.
As Maria Konnikova wrote in the New York Times, living an unpredictable, erratic life can erode self-control: “If we’re not quite sure when the train will get there, why invest precious time in continuing to wait?”
Often, low-income people aren’t sure what tomorrow will bring. So why waste time trying to diet?