Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities

Yves here. Lordie, anyone who has ever been on a limited income will recognize this charity as yet another version of “let them eat cake.”

By Falguni A. Sheth, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory at Hampshire College. Originally published at Translation Exercises

Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you to bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce selected kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are also numerous examples of good state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring your best, flourishing, self about?


This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process. 

The language of Groceryships appears neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods. (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. Access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, further constrain her free cooking time.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like so many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up recently, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions upon what they may demand of the constituents that they intend to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and must be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill upper-class aesthetic and moral expectations about what it means to live “a good life”…to flourish. And they are subject to that same upper class, which is in the best position to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their corporate wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period.  Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrowers and their loan servicing companies.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American populations.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But another aspect of this is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially and morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to succeed. This is because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will discipline the poor, by forcing them to reshape themselves as a condition of receiving boons from seemingly neutral, generous, charities such as  Polk’s, which models ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable and subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneously Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the rewards of plunder and the corporate nanny state are interpreted as an individual acts of generosity that supposedly help those who are the most needy, that is to say, those who were rendered needy through perverse governmentally-sanctioned financial practices.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

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  1. Nell

    We have the same mentality flourishing here in the UK. It all rests on this division between the deserving and undeserving poor. Polk’s behaviour also has has a religious feel to it. He’ll give but only if you follow his lead. That is not giving it is controlling.

    1. Clive

      Yes indeed. And as a fundraiser for a charitable concern, this dynamic is in play everywhere. Grant givers are very receptive to donating to what I will call “the photogenic, well behaved disabled people”. By which I mean, disabled people who have demonstrably overcome whatever has disadvantage them in their lives. Paralympics*/ sports participation, self employment and improving “marketable skills” are all pretty sure fire money earners.

      Conversely, tackling employment rights, campaigning against workfare, benefit and social security eligibility and social exclusion based on living in a deprived area are tough sells.

      Yves mentioned something quite profound a little while back — “positive stereotypes enable negative ones and you can’t have it both ways” was the gist. And it’s very true. If charity money flows more towards happy looking disabled people skiing down a mountain or making a success of their startup business then it makes the casual observer tend to think — in ignorance — “oh, well, all needy disabled people have to do is be like those success stories”. Which is not too far from “all disabled people need to do is make better life choices”. A short journey from there is “disadvantaged disabled people are in some ways to blame for their own predicament because look, there are disabled people who don’t need public assistance”.

      Nudge theory in this area is not only odious because it is odious. It is odious because it works (to a limited degree perhaps, but not limited enough to be harmless).

      * I’m starting to get a very queasy feeling about the idolisation of disabled athletes in the Paralympics; is it just me that thinks disabled people are being played here ?

      1. Noni Mausa

        This is what I have long called the “Readers Digest Effect,” where success stories that show people beating the odds have the effect of implying all people can beat the odds. This demonstrates that most people don’t grasp what “the odds” are. See the runner Glenn Cunningham for a good example.

        No one really wants to read a story where people are told they,will never walk again, and lo and behold they don’t. But for every Cunningham in the economic race, there are thousands of boring stories of people who do not walk again, who never become lawyers after studying by firelight, and whose small businesses do not become the legendary genesis of a wealthy chain of shops. Are all those thousands lazy? If so, then the vast majority of Americans must be world class lazy people. Anybody espousing that as a political platform?


    2. Binky Bear

      Maybe Polk will fund the UK an army of Henry Higginses to teach the lower sort proper diction en route to productive work as nannies, servants, butlers, maids, etc.

  2. Hugh

    The rich steal trillions. This naturally makes them expert on everything, Polk on nutrition, Gates on education, Pete Petersen on Social Security, etc.

    1. nycTerrierist

      “With money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well too.”
      – Yiddish proverb

      1. diptherio

        I like that one. Of course, it works just as the same whether it’s other people’s money in your pocket or your own. It should be pointed out, however, that this saying is not ridiculing the rich, but rather all those sycophants who fawn over them. Our problems, as ever, are made worse by our own screwy psychology.

  3. salvo

    the reconstitution of the lord-servant relationship in a modernized framing, the same is happening in germany with the introduction of the Tafel-system. What previously has been a socially recognized right warranted to any citizen is in the process of being re-transformed into a form of the symbolic exchange between lord and servant. That’s because the lord hates the ‘progressive’ state so much as it challenges that fundamental relationship

    1. psychohistorian

      So is that lord or Lord? Maybe we need F.Beard to step up and tell us the difference….(/snark)

      How old is the world F.Beard? I am sure it is older than the class system of that past 5 centuries when many chose faith over enlightenment.

  4. Dan Kervick

    Has anyone done any empirical research on the correlation between knowledge about nutrition and economic status? That would seem to be relevant to this issue.

      1. Dan Kervick

        Well if the goal is to help people put nutritional food on the table, it is important to find out what people know about nutrition.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      “Knowledge about nutrition” is pretty much non-existant. Seriously.

      I have good contacts with MDs who train and treat professional athletes. They are always looking for diet and supplementation idea. They read all the relevant medical literature and know what constitutes a good study (hint: the overwhelming majority are bunk).

      They have told me that nutrition is a backwater, that pretty much no good work is done there, and what passes for nutrition degrees are to credential people to go work for General Mills.

  5. allcoppedout

    Very thoughtful Yves. The critical problem has long been how we more from the critique to praxis (something we even consider critical in systems theories). I had many good students over the years who could manipulate the critical and much similar material was around in management schools. Meanwhile, the world was slipping down the slope to ‘debts’ that would take a billion years or so to pay off by devoting all average household income to the task. All of us were being paid from the very establishment zoo under our critique. Science tended to be viewed as a kind of half-learning by the theorists. The literature is so vast we’d need several volumes for the bibliography. The language gets so abstruse as to be and end in itself. It’s an achievement to express the issues as you have.

    Is it possible to turn to how we have achieved successes such as gender equality, decent health care and whatever else? These have arisen in what we generally think of as democratic-capitalist economies. Even successful armies these days treat their troops much better than in the days when you came back from serving Good Queen Bess against the Armada to die of starvation with your family because the great Queen didn’t pay you. These successes are always limited, but understanding the ‘mechanisms’ rather than assuming they are somehow part of trickle-down always seems something of an avoided issue.

    We seem to have baulked at the general advancement of freedom despite the achievement of western women and various other struggles. Indeed, one might think the establishment has understood the ‘mechanisms’ and put further barriers in place. One positive view is Jared Diamond’s ‘world as polder’. We are undoubtably better off with women’s freedom (admittedly incomplete and still too class-based) and we see little argument relating this to wider economic and decision freedom from ‘the masters’, especially in terms of means of achievement (I remember Susan Faludi lamenting men be ‘stiffed’). I find it very difficult to get to abstract argument on this, but surely we are looking at something very different than a trickle-down effect. The relations between critique or any planning and practice tend to be grey. Part of all this is whether we’d be talking critical theory or some Harvard Business Review HR at a job interview.

  6. diptherio

    I just cannot understand how someone can write the following two sentences and not immediately stop and go, “whoa, wait a minute…that doesn’t make sense…maybe I need to rethink this”:

    People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available.

    Riddle me this, Mr. Polk–if I live in a place where nutritious food is “simply not available,” then it what sense can I be said to be “opting” for eating non-nutritious food? How does one opt for something that is simply not available?

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      It’s the anticipatory business model where they will ship your desired DVD or book before your own realization.

      They also know what you don’t know….everything is in the NSA datable, available for non-violent, patriotic for-profit commercial data mining.

      So, for example, they stock very little meat in a Hindu neighborhood or Japanese rice crackers in Nanjing.

    2. J Sterling

      It’s Say’s Law, supply=demand and demand=supply. So when a thing is simply not available, they can point to a lack of demand, and say if there was a demand, there would be a supply.

  7. John

    An important part of this discussion should be the outsized influence of the industrialized agricultural and food cartels and monopolies using the communications monopolies to propagandize the population to influence what people eat. Monsanto, Kraft, Nestle, Coke anyone? Of course the serf will do what their corporate lords and masters “suggest”. Upper class aesthetics aside, this feel good oligarch is treating symptom, not causes.

  8. j gibbs

    This is one of the best pieces I have seen here, but it proves what can happen when you examine things a little too closely.

    Poor Sam; poor Kristan. They must be wondering what it was they did wrong and wishing they had just spent the money on another beach house.

    Perhaps we need more justice, less charity?

    1. Klassy

      I would welcome it if Mr. Polk would join the idle rich. I’m tired of these nitwits who believe the ownership of money has endowed them with great wisdom.

  9. diptherio

    This Mr. Polk fellow obviously has a difficult time thinking outside of the box, so I’ll help him out a little:

    There are many things which lead poor people into the clutches of poor nutrition. Living in a food desert is one of them, lack of financial wherewithal is another, lack of time and adequate facilities for cooking is another, as is our advertising culture that uses sophisticated psychological techniques to manipulate people into making poor dietary choices.

    If you really would like to help alleviate these problems, we welcome you to the cause. The first thing that you can do is finance the creation of worker/member-owned food co-ops in current food deserts. You provide jobs and healthy food. Two birds, one stone.

    You could also throw some money at expanding or creating CSA programs in or around food deserts, and by supporting local food producers. You can also finance free drop-off childcare which will make it easier for parents to find time to shop, cook, work, etc. Your idea for nutritional education is also a good one, although making it mandatory is unnecessarily paternalistic. Give people the ability to make good decisions and, by and large, they will.

    You could also lobby for increasing SNAP benefits, providing a Job Guarantee program and/or Basic Income Guarantee, ending subsidies to sugar and corn syrup manufacturers, and for limiting the ways in which advertisers can pitch their obesity-inducing products.

    Any one or all of these suggestions would help people without being paternalistic, and also work at addressing the roots of the problem, rather than just offering a band-aid for the symptoms.

    1. Klassy

      Give people the ability to make good decisions and, by and large, they will.
      I think this is still thinking within a neoliberal framework. Even if we talk about expanding access to healthy foods, we are still talking about individual behavior. (as an aside, subsidies to sugar raises the price, not lowers it)
      Here are some other issues affecting health that Sam Polk could have taken up– read the link on fracking/air quality. He could have used his riches to help publicize just how little Texas punishes Frackers for regulatory violations.
      Or off the top of my head, I think that poor people are more likely to die in house fires– due to living in older less fireproof buildings with old wiring, or because they have to rely on space heaters. Maybe he could direct his wealth towards a campaign to fight for adequate housing for everyone.
      Where I live, the Bobos are always blathering about light rail, but what we could really use is more sidewalks + trees (for shade and beautification) in the neighborhoods that sprung up in the 60’s and 70’s and an expansion of bus service.
      And like you said, a basic income and a job guarantee would go far towards improving health.

      1. diptherio

        Exactly. There are untold numbers of non-authoritarian ways to improve peoples lives if you’ve got a bunch of dough you feel the need to throw around. And, at least where I live, I see plenty of solidly middle-class folks (well, nice cars and clothes and smartphones anyway) heading to the McDonalds or the Taco Bell drive through. Which, now that I think about it, contradicts my earlier contention that people will make good choices if given the chance. Obviously not the case. Not even true for me. You can lead a horse to water, as the Chinese* say, but you can’t make it drink…and you shouldn’t try to, either. You sure as hell shouldn’t lead a horse to water and then immediately put it in a headlock and try to push it’s head into the water…which is what this type of paternalism often feels like from the “horse’s “perspective.

        *it is the Chinese, right?

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Is it the Chinese?

          It will be when Chinese Exceptionalism finally overtakes the American Exceptionalism.

    2. McMike

      The food itself is designed to provide instant lizard brain gratification, and also to be addictive.

      So, it’s not unlike the neighborhood smack dealer strategy. On the one hand they have food stamps, no spare time, and a local bodega with shelves full of ready to eat junk food and little or no health food.

      The junk food will provide immediate gratification for very little effort.

      1. Klassy

        There you go– “lizard brain”– denying any agency of the individual that indulges in junk food.

        1. McMike

          That’s not what I said at all. Don’t try and bifurcate me.

          Are you saying that physical and emotional manipulation and addiction have no role in decision-making?

          1. jrs

            There’s also what we know to be a problem. People have only so much willpower. If already your willpower is spent working several aweful jobs to survive, worrying how the bills will ever get paid, and all the other stresses of poverty, there will be less available to resist unhealthy food.

            1. Mcmike

              I can’t imagine after humping a job all day at Walmart and spending three hours riding buses and walking to get there, that I’d be the least bit interested in shopping, chopping, and sauteeing something that the kids will refuse to eat.

              Gimme a bag of cool ranch doritos and the TV remote.

  10. Robert Dudek

    Let me preface this by saying that refined sugar is a scourge that has devastated wealthy countries for decades and it is rarely even addressed as a PROBLEM.

    Maybe it’s my “Canadian” way of thinking, but I would approach this first by recognizing there are two separate problems:

    1) Much of the populace is too poor to be able to eat food that promotes health.

    2) Much MORE of the populace (and here I include much of the middle and upper classes) doesn’t have the requisite knowledge to do so.

    Then I would seek out the most effective way of solving/alleviating these conditions, putting aside ideological constraints. Here are some ideas:

    1) Fund public education vigorously and ensure that nutrition is a big part of it from a relatively early age. Make sure that every student learns how to cook (so many of my peers, men and women, rarely cook or even claim they don’t know how) and practice it often. Much more practical education of all kinds is needed in secondary school than currently exists. Mandate this for all accredited schools, including private ones.

    2) Raise minimum wage plus job guarantee or simply print money and give it directly to the poor (more money for the poor)

    3) Create a special food stamp program that works only in accredited organic food stores. Create government shops in areas that are underserved by existing organic food options.
    If all of this happened whatever the direct cost of funding these programs would be more than made up for by cost savings in health care, not to mention the incalculable positive effect it might have on social welfare (fitter people = generally happier people = less crime = better society etc).

    Government programs are the only way to address this problem, as individual “charity” set ups like Polk’s are mere pinpricks. Only governments have the scope necessary to deal with this problem.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I took that course. It was called “home economics”. All women in my age cohort were forced to take it. We were taught to cook and sew. I thought it was a waste of time

      They taught us to make icing with Crisco or lard, I can’t remember which.

  11. cripes

    Not mentioned here is that generally (i havent researched Polk’s charity) 70-90 percent of benefits/expenses in non-profit operations acrue to salaries of middle-class MSW degreed staff, consultants, overpaid administrators, consultants, seminars, retreats ad infinitum. And largely by hijacking public tax monies intended to help the poors and diverting it to the pockets of their betters. Its a trillion- dollar scam, akin to the privitazation of all public functions, reinforcing a feudal order, looting the public and promoting a poor haring ideology. Of course there are individuals who mean well, are sympathetic to clients, but the system, and its prime movers are a colossal scam perpetuating class oppression.sympathetic to their clents, but the best find themselves in conflict wirh the non-profit

    1. Klassy

      yeah, but so many liberals give anything labeled “non profit” a pass. Never mind that some of our biggest non profit institurions (hospitals and universities) are actually quite obsessed with profit.

      1. David

        I totally agree: non profit is simply a way for certain institutions to shovel money to the top (in the name of NONprofit) and circumvent certain tax codes. I went to a ‘non-profit’ extremely prestigious HS in Santa Monica called Crossroads (look it up on Wiki if you want to see our great list of alumni LMAO). The headmaster made upwards of 500,000 a year but somehow could only pay the teachers 25,000/year. And this is a school that gets:
        1.) Million dollar grants from famous screenwriters, producers, basketball stars, etc.
        2.) Each child pays $40,000/year to go. Including kindergarten – 5th grade. That is, ONE child’s tuition is almost twice the salary of the teachers.
        We also had raffles, sponsorships, etc all from massive corporations. We had catering that ranged from sushi to grilled meats to burritos, just literally everything you could want; catch was that each item was $10. And I wasnt surprised to learn that the headmaster had significant stock in the catering company.

        At least he was stealing from the rich. I can only imagine how non-profit hospitals literally make up figures for various procedures. Recently had my girlfriend check into an ER in Evanston because her vision was worsening. A quick checkup that told her all the wrong info (we looked it up online…it was due to high levels of caffeine lol) was around $400. Thats an entire weeks paycheck for a 3 minute exam!

        1. Klassy

          I was surprised when I read that hospitals in my state aren’t really audited to make sure they are fulfilling their non profit mission. Actually, I figured as much considering the salaries of top administrators.
          Now they say they are moving away from charity care (where they eat the costs of providing care to the indigent) because Obamacare will be putting so many on the medicaid rolls. They actually have the nerve to say that providing physician residencies and things like hooking up ER patients with a primary care physician counts towards their non profit mission. No wonder they were all in for Obamacare.
          I say tax ’em.

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef


        It’s like, when you have so much money that you don’t stress out over profit, you are somehow morally superior.

        ‘Hi, I am non-profit. I am here to demonstrate what sainthood looks like.’

    2. fledermaus

      I saw a lot of this while working in the non-profit. While there are front line people who actually help individuals there are 2 or 3 administrators who make 4x as much and spend their days on pointless awareness campaigns or lavish funraising (not a typo, I mean those supposedly charitable functions where everyone has a tasty meal in the nice spot and spends the day stroking each others’ egos)

    3. Vatch

      There are organizations that evaluate the effectiveness of charities. Two that come to mind are Guide Star and Charity Navigator. The executives of some charities really do receive huge salaries. Some charities possess large sums of money which they could spend on programs, but don’t.

      I would be interested in opinions on the accuracy of the charity evaluators.

      1. Vatch

        I hope that these organizations are on the level, but there is a possibility that they operate in a similar fashion to Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, Fitch’s, etc. That would not be good.

  12. Linden

    One thing I’ve learned in working with low-income populations is that there is always a reason for why people do the things they do. If people are eating unhealthy food, the reason is unlikely to be pure ignorance, but something else. Education programs may be useful for some, but they aren’t going to fix the underlying issues. In fact, they are a substitute for fixing the underlying issues, because if they don’t solve the problem you can then throw the blame back on the participants for not getting with the program.

    Similarly, in the consumer law area I resent the many statutes that require disclosure statements and other “warnings” to consumers about financial transactions. Yes, we need TILA, RESPA, clear and simple credit card disclosures, etc. but they become a substitute for fixing real problems. Instead of just outlawing certain bad business practices, it becomes well, you were warned, so it’s your fault if you get fleeced.

    1. Klassy

      Poor people might be eating unhealthful food for the same reason that upper middle class people do– because it’s tasty.
      Let’s look at some assumptions that people make– poor people lack nutrition education, or they are slaves to advertising mindlessly stuffing their faces, or they live in a “food desert”.
      In contrast, the wealthy and middle class may indulge in less than healthful fare– maybe at a high end restaurant or a purveyor of “gourmet hot dogs” themed for the ironic set. When they do this it is a sign of partaking of the good life, or maybe that they are capable of not taking themselves so seriously.

  13. Yellowrose

    This is just one more scheme that focuses attention on the individual and the individual’s efforts rather than on the underlying root causes of poverty – predatory lending, institutionalized racism, sexism, ableism, etc. It’s another “look here, not there” promulgated by the over privileged to justify why they are entitled to so much when others are starving. “Think positively” (The Secret and similar philosophies) and “pray for God to end poverty” (instead of praying for God to help us end poverty) are two more similar schemes. NET: If I am rich I’ve earned it or deserve it, conversely if you are poor it is your own fault or worse, God wants it for you.

  14. Working Class Nero

    This subject always elicits high emotions. From my point of view the linkage between poverty and obesity is overstated. For all the talk of “food deserts” the obesity rates for the poorest (5th) quintile are only a percentage point of two above the 4th quintile, which in its turn is only a point or two above the 3rd. Where we do see a serious drop-off is at the 1st (richest) quintile. In the UK the 5th (poorest) quintile actually has lower obesity rates than the 4th.

    The theory goes then that the rich are thin because they can afford good food. But this is ludicrous as certainly people from the next two quintiles (if not three) can afford good (and that doesn’t necessarily mean Whole) food yet they are still pretty much just as fat as the bottom quintile, within a few percentage points.

    To me it is clear that the reason the top quintile are less obese is because of social pressure that links obesity with lower-class prole identity. The rich have always wanted to separate themselves from the masses in a myriad of ways. It used to be luxury products or theories of the leisure class. Now it is by being thin. But of course it doesn’t take long before what was once a status symbol for the wealthy gets claimed by the rest of us. So perhaps the human desire for higher status will help drive the obesity numbers down.

    So the best theory of why Americans are so obese is clearly a general problem where the over-consumption and bad nutrition pushed by Big Food are the norms and that these problems are slightly magnified by being poor while on the other hand the rich are motivated by questions of status to resist the dominant cultural trend towards obesity.

    The other interesting thing the number show is a huge obesity divide between genders. Black (31.6%), Latino (30.7%), and White (27.5%), and men all have very similar obesity rates and these differences are even slighter than the economic disparities between the races. For women it is a very different story. Black (41.2%), Latina (33.1%), White (24.5%) women are all over the map on obesity. Two theories can explain this; black women are more often the head of a poor household alone and so the economic pressures that magnify obesity slightly are focused even more strongly on them. But there is another status-related aspect to this. In terms of being perceived as sexually attractive, black women are under much less social pressure to be thin since generally black men appreciate fuller figured women. The other extreme of this scale is that white men in general tend to not have such a liberal view towards overweight women, an example of which is the disgust shown at Lena Dunham not covering herself up enough on the show “Girls” and she is arguably not all that fat. So in general white women are under more social pressure to remain thin.

    In the end the problems leading to obesity in America (and increasingly other parts of the world) are of a general nature. It seems identifying and attacking the root causes (corporations producing and pushing crap products on the people) that lead to obesity in the bottom 80% is a better approach than teaching some poor people the methods used by the top 20% to resist becoming fat.

    1. diptherio

      I will say that I think you’ve got a point on our society-wide eating habits. It’s S.A.D.–the Standard American Diet–that is a big part of the problem. Meat three times a day, lots of dairy, not to mention the ubiquitous soda. Sad, sad, sad…

  15. tim s

    Many of those processed foods are not cheaper than healthier options. I’m not poor, but I eat plenty of beans by choice. I can make them very tasty with onion, garlic & seasonings. I tend to eat them with cornbread or rice. It is much healthier and cheaper by the pound than most if not nearly all prepackaged processed options for subsisting. Both are also easily made with the most basic of appliances, which people eating processed food also will need. These are traditionally known as the food of the poor, so it’s not like there’s some shame in such a diet. There is alot of possible variety and quality in this diet alone. Many poor have the option to grow food and do not. Sunshine is free and typically sufficient and places to grow may be found to many (although admittedly not all).

    Let’s not forget that many people eating these processed foods do so not just because they are poor but because they tend to taste good and are engineered to be tasty and even addictive. Many who eat these are not aware of the poisonous and addictive nature of processed foods. Can someone say they are too poor to avoid purchasing the sugary crap that passes for breakfast cereal? I see it really as more of a trap.

    Speaking of traps, I think most people reading this will agree that there are many traps set up for the poor. Without realizing what those traps are and doing everything in their power to avoid such traps, a poor person or group will find only continued slavery and early death at the hands of their predators.

    This is not a blame game. These are just some facts as I see them that I’ve not seen in this post or other comments. Nor am I saying it is the whole picture, just an important part of it.
    We cannot hope to pull everyone from poverty, but there is still hope for many with a change of mindset. Of course, changing someone elses mind is not easy, but it can happen with increased general awareness.

    for example:

    1. j gibbs

      The very best soup I have ever eaten calls for 1 cup of dried white beans and 1 small ham hock. With seven cups of water, salt and pepper, it makes four healthy meals. Cost: less than $0.50 each.

      The soup is so good they used to serve it in the US Senate cafeteria every day. Perhaps they still do.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We have to undo a lot of what ‘progress’ has brought us – processed food, frozen food, etc.

      Simpler life – we lose it bit by bit everyday here in our country, and blown to pieces in other countries that the victims have to come to the imperial core to join the system and contribute to the machine.

  16. McMike

    Interesting, freaking physicians make it through years of med school and years of practice, only to wake up one day to discover (on their own) that there’s a link between diet and health. And that a good diet alone can actually reduce the need for medical interventions.

    Folks, our medical system is seriously broken.

    1. Klassy

      I believe that story is apocryphal. It fits his narrative and adds to his personal redemption story, but it is truly doubtful that his wife was not aware of the role of diet in health.

      1. Mcmike

        Perhaps, but it is consistent with my experience with medical professionals.

        Ideas like nutrition and wellness play secondary importance to surgery and pharmaceuticals. They are also often remarkably uncurious outside of their learned routines.

        I cannot count the blank stares I get when I ask questions outside the textbook paradigms.

  17. Ed S.

    Groceryships isn’t about helping the poor, it’s about helping Sam demonstrate who the TRUE Sam Polk is. It’s about Sam promoting Sam (and his spouse). Feeding “the poor” is incidental to the mission.

    So who is Sam? Well, his personal webpage ( is about Sam the writer and Sam the philanthropist. What’s he written (he has a BA from Columbia in English)? A few blog posts, a couple of editorials. And, of course, a memoir:
    Gatsby, Interrupted is a memoir about a Wall Street trader’s journey towards wholeness. It explores the roots of ambition and addiction, and how they are the same, and portrays Wall Street as a culture of damaged people desperate to feel powerful..

    A book about himself.

    So we have a young, affluent (looking at his backround, the comment “my parents struggled from paycheck to paycheck” rings hollow) guy who spent about 7 years trading bonds — first at Credit Suisse and then at BofA. And now is going to teach the poor how to live their lives.

    It’s narcissism cloaked in altruism.

    As diptherio mentioned above, if the intent is to “help the poor eat better” there are many (un-glamorous, un-self-promotional) activities he could undertake.

    One final question (to which I suspect the answer): Groceryships has two interns. Are they paid?

  18. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    There are so many things wrong with the poor that it’s our solemn duty to (not get rid of them) but to make them all rich (I guess this is sort of ‘getting rid of them’).

    In that sense, get rid of the poor!

  19. PeonInChief

    This tripe is all over the place. Remember that the Vice-President defined the middle class as people who work hard, want to send their children to college, are upstanding neighbors who mow the lawn, take a vacation, and have the income to support this. The rest of us are sitting on the sofa eating bon bons. It’s the same mentality that suggests that financial education would solve the problem of poverty, but without the part where they count up all the income and expenses and then realize that there’s just not enough income to pay the bills. Or an experiment conducted by the government in NYC a few years ago that sought to determine which programs helped people who couldn’t pay their rent would keep them from a similar crisis down the road. They apparently never thought through the problem, as people who are spending half their incomes on housing are going to be on the edge of crisis each and every month.

  20. vegas mike

    One of the advantages of food stamps is their relatively low administrative cost. Also, for food stamp recipients, enrollment is a fairly easy process. If you’re getting unemployment or disability food stamps act as an income supplement. To try to couple food stamps with nutrition education might seem to be an admirable goal. But in practice it would at the same time be inefficient and coercive. In Las Vegas, the Mexican supermarkets offer fresh fruits and vegetables at a reasonable price. The quality is as good as Albertson’s; the prices are better. To coin a phrase, there is the kale paradox. Kale a few decades was a peasant vegetable, eaten mostly by immigrants. Now, we associate kale with annoying upper-middle class Volvo drivers

  21. Paul P

    At least he’s not trying to privatize Social Security.

    On the Post:
    Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you to bring your best, flourishing, self about? … socialist frameworks that redistribute resources ….

    The state always interferes with you to bring about a result. Dean Baker’s “Nanny State” book mentioned in the post and the subsidies to finance that this blog deliniates daily are two examples. And, the state subsidy to the food industry that sets an army of people working to surround you with processed food is another example. To hide state action behind a market cloud does not make it less state action.

    The concepts of “redistribution” and “transfer payments” are ideological terms disguised in the neutral language of analysis. The terms assume someone rightfully has something and, for some good social reason, the state is going to make them share their wealth with poorer people. A casual look at where the wealth of a society comes from reveals it comes from nature and labor. We all are beneficiaries of past labor and its gifts to the present. The labor theories of value, whether those of Ricardo, Smith, or Marx had to be undone as a way of
    understanding the world. The logic of these theories stripped moral justification from ownership of property and made the capitalist a robber baron.

    So powerful has been the counter offensive against the implications of labor theories of value that Greg Mankiw can write his NYT Op Ed slop defense of financial crooks and no one thinks it should have been placed in The Onion.

    1. Klassy

      The OP does not dismiss state coercion in solving public health problems as she speaks favorably of seat belt laws. We know that they do save lives. And forcing someone to wear a seat belt does not involve a lot of trade offs. Perhaps there is someone out there who gets as much pleasure from driving beltless as others do from eating a piece of cheesecake or having a beer, but I doubt there are that many.
      I personally was thrown for a loop yesterday reading the discussion of fluoridated water. There may be some trade offs, but the net effect seems entirely positive– less cavities, better teeth, less time sucking and costly trips to the dentist. Why would people be so up in arms about it?
      But food is essential for life and it provides pleasure too.

  22. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    I’ll just leave a C.S. Lewis quote here in regard to the original question of the article:

    Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.

  23. Noni Mausa

    Finally, another point, responding to the bean soup and ham hock recipe further upthread; yes, you can make tasty food very cheaply, as the peasant cuisine of all countries demonstrates. Rice and beans and cabbage and so on.

    So, suppose the poorest Americans do begin paying less for their daily food. Suppose they listen to their benevolent charities and begin saving more, living more cheaply, darning their sock by candlelight and so on. Suppose they succeed in cutting their needs so much that they can live comfortably on half what the poorest workers earn now?

    I predict that wages, hours or both would fall until that level of skimping once again had the poorest living poorly. Remember, “if you can live on less, they will pay you less.”

  24. Vlad

    This article highlight the truism that “No good deed goes unpunished”. It is true that the Pokes have a view of the poor that may be a bit condescending, but there may be a bit of truth in their view. Rather then condemning the Pokes, we should be asking why more Wall Street fat cats aren’t stepping up to give something back to American society. And no, donating money to Israel or to an art gallery is not giving back to American society.

    1. cripes

      Vlad: Because temporary assistance and mandatory classes for the ignorant poor is no substitute for adequate income.

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