Let’s Ban Poor People From [Everything]

From Creative Commons/Flickr. This piece is on soda purchases with food stamps. And what else is soda but fizzy sugar water? Not saying I don’t drink it, just how else would you describe it?

Should we ban poor people from buying soda? A recent article in the New York Times reported that families who receive food stamps buy more sugary drinks than families who don’t, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though the U.S.D.A. repeated that the results don’t reveal a dramatic difference between the shopping carts of Americans, rich or poor, some public health experts remain skeptical. They want to ban food stamps from being used to buy soda.

However, there are limits in the U.S.D.A. study and its 2011 data collection. It failed to consider geographical differences between American spending and eating habits. It also assumed low-income families in urban neighborhoods spent most of their food stamps in grocery stores, rather than the corner store or bodega down the street.

Even if it’s true that poor people drink more sugary drinks, this habit won’t be broken with a ban on buying soda using Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or federal food stamps. If anything, the proposed policy, and all the lobbying against it, is a distraction from the real problem: our government’s cozy relationship with agribusiness.

First, the study published by the Department of Agriculture was limited in scope. The data came from a single anonymous grocery chain in the United States. Since grocery chains are regional, were they Safeways in California or Winn Dixies in the South? What about Hannafords in New England?

The Washington Post reported that the public health of Americans, and their daily eating, drinking and smoking habits, varies from region to region. For example, New Englanders are healthier overall, but more likely to smoke and drink than Southerners. Relying on data from one regional grocery chain, it might be a leap to make assumptions on what all SNAP families scan at the register.

Convenience stores, local bodegas and bulk warehouses were not included in the analysis. Low-income families are more likely to live in food deserts where there is no nearby grocery store. The local shops not included in this analysis might be more expensive, but it would likely be more convenient.

On the other hand, bulk stores sell cheaper groceries in bigger packages. It’s possible that low-income households spent more of their food stamps, here.

Regardless, let’s say more studies are done and new evidence comes out that SNAP households are spending more on sugary beverages than non-SNAP families. The government is subsidizing soda purchases.

It’s clear our government has a direct stake in public health, from providing health insurance through the Affordable Care Act to footing the bill for emergency care. It’s how politicians justify a “sin” tax on alcohol and smoking bans in restaurants. It’s why some states refuse to legalize marijuana and why others allow for its medical use.

Offering free healthcare while subsidizing harmful habits doesn’t make sense. Private companies that churn out snack cakes and soft drinks essentially cash checks from Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, American taxpayers bear the lifetime cost of chronic disease, like Type II diabetes.

There’s no doubt some good intentions behind preventing food stamps from paying for junk food. It’s an attempt to break the chain between poverty and poor health. It’s just misdirected.

In the debate over soda and food stamps, an estimated $357 million or the yearly amount spent on soda by SNAP recipients, is at stake. Yet, there’s a bigger subsidy, one nearly ten-fold in size, that no one on Capitol Hill wants to wrestle with.

The number one ingredient in soda is high fructose corn syrup, a clear, gooey sweetener derived from field corn. In 2014, our government spent $2.3 billion subsidizing corn. Why are politicians so hell-bent on regulating individual habits, yet blind to regulating the corporate subsidies that encourage unhealthy consumption?

Soda is engineered to be addictive; one sip releases a slew of feel-good chemicals that prevent satiety and triggers cravings. Regular soda drinkers are likely swayed by these effects when paused in the aisle lined with liters of Coca-Cola. Limiting food stamp purchases would crack down on addicted citizens, but leave the “drug lords” untouched.

For food companies that profit from America’s sugar addiction, a SNAP ban on soda wouldn’t put a dent in the billions of dollars in corn subsidies they receive each year. Lobbyists bat around ethics with the public, inciting rallies over the soda ban on the table. For lobby groups, it must feel like a light-hearted scrimmage. Their biggest subsidy isn’t on the mound, but hidden safely in the bullpen.


DeVos Doesn’t Know My Public School

My parents at my high school graduation. They’ve never looked prouder, I think.

Poised to upend the status quo, our next education secretary is likely Betsy DeVos. She’s pumped millions of her own fortune to support voucher programs, funding private tuition with taxpayer dollars. Charmed by charter schools, DeVos is eager to fork it over when prep schools come knocking, but she slams the door when the outstretched hand belongs to a public school. 

As someone grateful for my free K-12 education, this woman scares me most among all of Trump’s nominees. I’m a proud graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, a highly-ranked but overcrowded public high school in suburban New Jersey. Many of my classmates were Asian immigrants like myself.

Prestigious private schools, including The Lawrenceville School, Princeton Day School and Peddie, were a 15-minute drive from our home. But like many immigrants, my parents couldn’t afford the six-figure price tag to send two kids there every year. Nor could they navigate the competitive admissions process with their broken English and full-time jobs.

If my family had been offered a voucher under DeVos’ grand scheme, we likely would have taken it. My classes would have been smaller. I would have gotten more one-on-one attention from my teachers. The counselor might not have asked me to outline my own college recommendation. There would have been soap in the bathroom dispensers. Maybe even full-size lockers.

But I might not have learned to focus in crowded classrooms, unafraid to shout a wrong answer with confidence. I wouldn’t have signed a petition to fix public health guidelines, after learning the defrosted pizza on my Styrofoam tray counted as a vegetable serving (because under a thick layer of cheese lay two tablespoons of tomato sauce). I wouldn’t have been able to walk myself home from school on days both my parents worked.

I remember my local school district struggled to maintain its diverse reputation. As Asian students became the overwhelming majority, a dozen or so of my classmates transferred to prep school. All but one were white.

DeVos’ policies to cut education funding would only expedite this wealthy, white flight from public schools, not just in my town but in districts across the country. The result: a segregated education system that voucher programs aren’t likely to fix.

In San Francisco, whites make up 29 percent of the school-age population but just 12 percent of students in the city’s public schools. In the South, a 2016 report by the Southern Education Foundation found that private schools are re-segregating classrooms into rich and white or poor and black. Furthermore, it reported that vouchers have done little to diversify them.

Voucher programs can also hinder student progress. Recent studies on the programs in Louisiana and Indiana found that reading and math scores declined after voucher recipients transferred to private schools. Yet, there was an unexplained advantage among these private school transfers. When it came to a college degree, they were more likely to attend and finish a four-year school compared to their public school peers.   

Even here at Middlebury, a college with need-blind admissions and a generous financial aid budget, prep school diplomas are the norm, rather than the exception, like it is in the rest of this country. The College’s website estimates 48 percent of students graduated from private school.

Though the split is near fifty-fifty, it’s nowhere close to the national statistic. The National Center for Education Studies reported just 10 percent of school-age children went to private school in 2014. That means Middlebury recruited nearly half its incoming class from a one-tenth sliver of all American students. Furthermore, the median family income among students is $244,000 and nearly a quarter belong to the wealthiest one percent of all American households, the New York Times reported.  

Playing the numbers game, I’m lucky to be here. But what will be the odds of my peers – the three million other 18-year-olds who graduate each year without the privilege of private schooling – to attend an elite college like ours after DeVos cuts funding for public schools? After she implements voucher programs in their place?

The rise of populism in this year’s election revealed discontent among hopeful college graduates and hardened blue-collar workers alike. Yet, a quality and free education gives every American a shot at the “American Dream,” no matter their party, race, income or immigrant status. In conservative speak, education spending is the rising tide that lifts all boats. If Trump’s administration champions merit, hard work and grit among our country’s founding values, our education secretary must invest in public schools, not defund them.

Healthcare and House Parties?

Read a ridiculous op-ed from a student-run conservative magazine, “The Princeton Tory” comparing health care to house parties.

The gist: A single eating club can’t fit the entire student body into their house, nor provide the alcohol to get everyone drunk. Similarly, a single-payer system is something our government can’t afford (though military spending neared $600 billion in 2016, four times the next biggest spender, China).

Seriously? There is something very wrong with this analogy.

  1. Healthcare is a necessity for all Americans. On the other hand, social climbing and underage drinking — these are hobbies of privileged college students.
  2. There’s a return on providing regular check-ups to the uninsured. Preventative medicine could save taxpayers a lot of money in the long-run. What’s the return for club members who let in every underclassmen to trash their house? Exactly.
  3. Students who aren’t invited to these exclusive parties can find nightlife elsewhere, even the dreaded public “Quad” as described by the author. For people who can’t afford health insurance, options are limited and bleak: emergency room, death.


The Electoral College needs to be repealed, or it needs a serious retrofit

Amid petitions to either repeal the electoral college or for electors to reject their state’s popular vote, the 2016 election has made it clear, once again, that article 2, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution has been hijacked by the two-party system.

Today’s electoral college reminds me of an armchair (representative democracy) someone tried to convert into a rocking chair (direct democracy). Halfway through, they got distracted. The result? A chair teetering on two legs and a single rocker — rickety, uncomfortable and just plain wrong.

Let’s backtrack to what the original armchair looked like:

Each state got a certain number of electoral votes based on the number of politicians they have in the federal legislature (# of house representatives + 2 senators). On the presidential ballot, you’d be voting for electors, not necessarily candidates. These positions, separate from the house and the senate, would be short-lived; just a month later, sometime in December, electors would meet to decide the next president and vice-president and that would be that.

So under the original armchair model of the electoral college, your 2016 ballot would’ve looked something like this if you were voting in Alaska (1 house representative and 2 senators):

Vote for THREE:

  1. Candidate A
  2. Candidate B
  3. Candidate C
  4. Candidate D
  5. Candidate E
  6. Candidate F
  7. etc.

The armchair was borne out of compromise. Some framers of our constitution wanted the president to be seated on a rocking chair, or by popular vote, while others wanted the president to be elected by Congress or governors (wooden church pew?). The latter, who agreed to settle for the electoral system, envisioned each state’s electors to act as an informed “committee” to pick the next president. They’d be policy whizzes, great readers of personal traits, in tune with the people’s interests and loyal to the basic criteria of what makes someone qualified to be commander-in-chief.

But this is how most ballots looked in November 2016:  

Vote for ONE:

  1. Clinton and Kaine (Democratic)
  2. Johnson and Weld (Libertarian)
  3. Stein and Baraka (Green-Rainbow)
  4. Trump and Pence (Republican)
  5. Write-in candidates

What gives? 

Today, the task of electors is largely left up to political parties. They hire policy experts, consult research think-tanks and (sigh) lobbyists to pick a candidate and craft a platform they believe is best for the nation and will be supported by the party’s constituents. At the national conventions, not only is the presidential nominee and their running mate selected, but so are the 538 “hidden” electors you don’t see on today’s ballot. In most states, minus Nebraska and Maine, a vote for a major party candidate is essentially a vote for the entire bloc of electors in that state chosen by that candidate’s party. Given this winner-take-all scenario, it’s no surprise that presidential politics is a two-player game.

Since the founding of the college, 157 electors have gone against state voters. About half were faithless because the candidate they were slated to vote for died in the one-month span between the November election and the December convention date. But 82 chose to be faithless on their own accord; the most notable being 23 Virginia electors in the vice president pick during the election of 1836. Though this kind of “faithless” voting has never reversed the outcome of any U.S. election to date, this year could set a new precedent (because Trump’s nomination and election just wasn’t enough.)

Although a federal law to punish electors for failing to vote for their state’s popular choice would require a constitutional amendment, many states have passed their own laws to fine or nullify the votes of electors who are “faithless” to the popular vote. This, along with the two-party system, is responsible for today’s dysfunctional half-rocking armchair that seats our next President. It’s neither entirely faithful to the popular vote or to the electors job of “checking” it.

Here are three big reasons our founders created the electoral college in the first place:

1) Prevent the election of a populist candidate who caters to tyranny and extreme political views

In the Federalist papers, John Adams argued it was human nature for people to resist governance. Democracy is dangerous because it gives people the right to pick their rulers when they inherently cringe at the thought of being ruled. Furthermore, Adams claimed the crowd-rallying power of extreme factions made it unlikely for centrist candidates to win the popular vote, despite their level-headed platform to unite the country through compromise. And as we saw in this year’s election, lukewarm policies elicit lukewarm voting patterns while extreme positions inspire populist excitement and passion to get to the polls.

2) Balance of power between big and little states (aka our country is too big and different to rule with popular vote)

The electoral system forces candidates to consider the interests of voters in rural, less-populated states by making their votes “worth” more than a voter in a more populous state. But these bigger states also get a bigger overall chunk of electors in the college vote — it’s a brilliant way to balance any one state’s influence on the election in a nation with that has so much geographic, demographic and cultural diversity.

3) The average Jane or Joe doesn’t have the time or knowledge to vet the best candidate for the most important job in the country.

This one, from Alexander Hamilton (!), we’ve heard a million times over. But technology and media has made it easier for citizens to be better informed about the candidates, their history, and their platforms than was feasible in the late 18th century.  The American people are no longer too dumb and lazy to select their leader through a good old popular vote. But the election of Donald Trump, a man with zero political background or realistic policy ideas, and the role of the media in this outcome suggests otherwise…

In short, the framers built an armchair, instead of a rocking chair to protect against a populist outsider like Trump from wreaking havoc in Washington. The full rocking chair model, electing the president and vice-president through direct popular vote, was seen as too risky.

Whether you think that was a good idea or not is up for debate, but it’s beyond debate that Donald Trump is less qualified and less experienced than Hillary Clinton to work in the Oval Office (though I heard he wants to move the president’s HQ to Trump Tower).

HRC has served as the first lady, was a long-time New York senator and served as secretary of state for the Obama administration. Donald Trump ran on the fumes of an angry and fed-up populace characterized as “anti-establishment,” rallying behind his extreme social positions and unrealistic policy “solutions” like a trade war with China or building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it.

To prevent our federal government from collapsing under the weight of someone so unfit to serve as president, our founding fathers created the stable armchair model. If the electoral college was to function as it was intended by the Constitution’s framers, the electors would put Clinton in office regardless of the popular vote. Giving electors the freedom to do their job, to act as a check on the popular vote, would essentially be retrofitting the half-rocker back to its original form — a functional and comfy armchair with a little wiggle room for direct democracy’s missteps.

But while political parties continue to fight over upgrading it, retrofitting it or burning it altogether in favor of a popular vote, we’re all sitting in these ridiculous chairs, praying this next presidency won’t tip us over.