Thursday, February 21, 2019

Hella Noms

It has become an increasingly common story: A dollar store opens up in an economically depressed area with scarce healthy and affordable food options, sometimes with the help of local tax incentives. It advertises hard-to-beat low prices but it offers little in terms of fresh produce and nutritious items—further trapping residents in a cycle of poverty and ill-health.
The Dollar Store Backlash Has Begun
Thus opens another story that takes a symptom of poverty, and casts it as a cause, in the name of everything that is not the solution is a part of the problem.

This strikes me as dubious, because I don't understand how the presence of dollar stores makes "healthy and affordable (where 'affordable' is simply a synonym for 'cheap') food options" any more scarce in low-income neighborhoods than they were at the start. And part of the reason why the food tend to be prepackaged and of dubious nutritional quality are the aforementioned "hard-to-beat low prices," which rarely attach themselves to perishable or high-quality items.

In this respect, the problem isn't the dollar store industry. It's simply offering people an illusory standard of living, cobbled together out of low-end merchandise that's inexpensive to purchase, but doesn't last in proportion to its price. Part of what makes poverty so expensive (relatively speaking) is the fact that a hypothetical low-end good may be a quarter of the price of a higher-quality equivalent, but only have a fifth of the lifespan, and that lost twentieth adds up quickly. Returning to food, the ability to buy lots of something at one time is helpful. The article says that: "When economists compared the price of goods like flour and raisins of the same weight, they noticed that dollar store products were higher cost than those at the nearby Walmart or Costco." But the link is important, because it makes clear that the packages are not the same weight. Dollar stores sell flour at $1 for a two-pound package. Walmart and Costco charge less than $2.50 for a five-pound package. But this is a common phenomenon, and one that you don't need to compare stores in order to see. My local grocery store charges $5.99 a pound for a regular-sized pack of chicken. But if you're willing and able to buy the four-plus pound value pack, the price drops to $3.99 a pound. A car and a reasonably spacious freezer can make grocery shopping less expensive. But the large package sizes that big-box stores can manage often mean that the middle-income can stock up more cheaply. Equating this to "privilege" may be overstating it, but the economic benefits are clear.

But none of this is the fault of the businesses that sell inexpensive goods. Especially when they've opened in places where other options are rare. "Healthy and affordable food options" may be fairly common, but that's different than saying that they're ubiquitous. And both the words "healthy" and "affordable" are relative. While the food that I can pick up from my local grocery store or the cafeteria at work may fit the bill as far as this article is concerned, I'm pretty sure that there are health-conscious people who would consider my typical; purchases to be nightmares and I'm well aware of the fact that there are people for whom my food budget is more or less entirely out of reach. Given this, the idea that dollar stores are complicit in the problems of America's poor due to their failure to serve foods the health-conscious would approve of at prices the destitute can routinely manage seems to be wishful thinking. Likewise, one can fault the main grocery chains for following their customers away from declining neighborhoods or for responding to people who have more options by making their stores nicer and the merchandise better. But given that this is the way business works, it seems unproductive, at best.

What would need to change to eliminate food deserts is perhaps another revolution in agriculture; one that made what would now be considered high-end, healthful food common enough that the overall price drops far enough that selling it in low-income neighborhoods would be the only way to prevent waste. Dollar stores could sell high-quality food, and there would be enough choice that low-quality groceries would become non-viable. But that seems unlikely. Restricting where dollar stores can set up shop seems like a viable option, but it's really simply forcing certain suboptimal choices (paying more for food) at the expense of others (a less healthy diet).

Poverty can be defined as having one's choices constrained to the point of being straited by a lack of resources. What makes people poor is that they're faced with food that either costs more than they can pay and still have enough money left over for other priorities or leaves them more exposed to health risks than is optimal when considering what they need to do to care for themselves. And this is the thing about dollar stores. Doing away with them does not remove that constraint. It may force people's hands towards the sub-optimal choice that advocates prefer, but it's no less a bad choice for being marginally more acceptable to the alternative.

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