Let’s ban poor people from _____

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.

Thoughts on Inauguration Day

It happened. The twitter avatar of @POTUS is a smiling Donald Trump. *shivers*

But what shocked me the most that day happened right after: anti-Trump protesters took to the streets of D.C., vandalizing and terrorizing, smashing the windows of a local Starbucks (Really, Starbucks?). Major social and political battles in the U.S. haven’t been won through violence since the Civil War. Peaceful protests led to women’s suffrage, civil rights and the legalization of gay marriage. Those are our precedents. That is our standard. It hurts me to consider what this election has done to our country, both on the left and the right. It hurts me to imagine what this presidency might bring.

Even as a women whose #pussygrabsback, as a self-righteous liberal millennial who cried on election night, I’m in disbelief. The whole #notmypresident movement is bogus. He is our president. Yes, I am one of the 65 million Americans who didn’t vote for him on November 11, but he is the president of our democracy, one grounded in the people’s will and the ballot box.

Senator Roy Burnett said it best in his opening remarks. “We are here today not to celebrate victory, but to celebrate democracy and its peaceful transfer of power.”

———————–

No inauguration speech should end with a campaign slogan. The last thing we need to hear is more political rhetoric, especially after this bitterly divided election. Trump’s “my way or the highway” attitude shouldn’t have seeped into his speech as much as it did. And his “unique” appeal, or unprecedented rise to power, is no excuse.

But now that I think about it, my criticism reflects something both parties struggled with during the entire race: What does a “presidential” nominee look like?

The GOP struggled to unite behind Trump because of his offensive words and crass tweets; he simply wasn’t “presidential” enough. Newcomer Bernie Sanders’ far-left populist agenda shocked all Democrats. Some got fired up to support him; others ran the other way to more predictable Hillary Clinton.

If I’m upset about Trump’s inauguration speech because it violated the status quo of being apolitical,  I’ve got no case. He campaigned on anti-establishment ideals, to drain the swamp in favor of the average Joe (aka white working-class males). By straying from traditional pomp and circumstance, his speech fit snugly into his vision of American politics.

But that’s not it. Trump’s words offended me today because they failed to address or even acknowledge all Americans, especially those (the majority of our country) who didn’t vote for him. He said nothing about women, beyond protecting “our mothers and children” from inner-city plight. He said nothing about immigrants, beyond “bring back our borders.” He said nothing about racism, sexism or bigotry, beyond patriotism leaving “no room for prejudice” (fact check: Hitler preached nationalism and planned mass genocide). Even in revamping our economy, Trump ranted about factory and construction jobs, but had no words for those seeking jobs in green energy, international business, journalism – anything else!

What the hell, man. And the Women’s March in D.C. (and sister marches all over the WORLD) is happening tomorrow. It’s not just a coincidence they’ve been planned for the day after the inauguration. The least you could’ve done is use the word “women” in your speech, not just call us “mothers” for our child-bearing capacities. Unless, of course, that’s all we are to you.

DeVos Doesn’t Know My Public School

Poised to upend the status quo, our next education secretary is likely Betsy DeVos. She’s pumped millions of her own fortune into support for voucher programs, or the use of taxpayer dollars for private tuition. She’s charmed by charter schools. Though eager to fork it over when prep schools come knocking, she slams the door when the outstretched hand belongs to a publicly-funded school.

As someone grateful for my free K-12 education, Betsy DeVos scares me the 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.

National Book Club

If we want to unite our country, we need to rebuild empathy.

And what better way then stepping in the shoes of a fictional character? What better way than sharing a book?

Diverse yet divided cities like Chicago have done it. It might be a logistical nightmare to plan an official meeting for all 300 million of us to attend a book club meeting, but why doesn’t the President select a book he recommends every American read that year? And if President Obama had time to read an hour before bed every night, in between solving the 2008 economic crisis and finding Osama Bin Laden, what’s our excuse?

If we spent less time on our smartphones, yelling in the echo chambers of our social networks, and more time reading fiction instead of fake news, how much more empathy could we rebuild as a country that our kids recite everyday is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”?

 

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.

 

Yosemite Earthquake Aftershock or the Garbage Truck?

On Wednesday morning, three earthquakes in the mid-5’s magnitude range shook Yosemite Valley. Scientists predict aftershock tremors of magnitude 3 in the Bay Area over the next couple weeks, KQED News reported.

The difference between these magnitudes at face-value is relatively small, only 2.5 or so. A 2.5 magnitude earthquake is just about the smallest tremor humans can notice. But as a measure of size, force and potential damage, a 2.5 magnitude difference is huge.

According to the USGS magnitude calculator, recent tremors in Yosemite Valley will be 500 times bigger than any aftershocks felt in the Bay Area. The energy released from the Yosemite earthquakes will be 11,000 times greater. In terms of damage, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake shook Tokyo’s skyscrapers in 2013. Meanwhile, the USGS describes an earthquake of magnitude 3 like “the vibrations of a passing truck” – it could maybe knock a collector’s plate off the edge of a shelf.

How can just 2.5 units of magnitude determine whether a building will wobble or just a plate will break? It’s in the formula.

Most scales we’re familiar with change at the same rate, by the same unit of measurement. For a literal example, a dog that weighs 40 pounds is twice as heavy as one that weighs 20. And a dog that weighs 80 pounds is twice as heavy as the 40-lb pooch. The scale is linear.

But the scale we used to measure earthquakes isn’t so straightforward. Just like its retired predecessor, the Richter scale, moment magnitudes are logarithmic. Every one unit increase means the force is 32 times more powerful…

Book Review: “Hillbilly Elegy”

I should’ve known from the title: “Hillbilly Elegy.” Really, “elegy”? I had to google that and I’m a soon-to-be college grad….

This book was clearly written by a newly minted member of the American elite, not the J.D. Vance described on the jacket cover: an abused child raised by Appalachia’s struggling middle class.

It’s part memoir, part pseudo-sociology, peppered with political diatribes against liberal welfare policies. Many pages are dedicated to scolding his “hillbilly” neighbors for being lazy and delusional, spewing his bitter resentment for welfare checks and food stamps and preaching the importance of “good” Christian values.

I should’ve flipped to the back panel and read his short bio before I purchased the book. He’s contributed to the National Review and works in finance (as a “principal” for an investment firm in Silicon Valley). Though he never admits this conservative bias, he describes a woman he meets at Yale law school as a living, breathing Ayn Rand protagonist. He immediately falls in love; eventually, they get married. Enough said.

As a rags-to-riches “hillbilly” memoir, I liked it. Only when Vance began citing academic research to propose policy solutions (aka don’t even bother, it’s not the government’s fault) did I want to tear my hair out.

He references all this great sociology research, but twists their findings to fit his political agenda. “All our Kin” by Carol Stacks and “The Truly Disadvantaged” by William Wilson are both studies on urban black poverty. Though he mentions this inconsistency in a passing sentence or two, he doesn’t dwell on it. It’s like it makes no difference that Stacks was studying the role of black women as heads of households and the strong relationships they create with each other, living in close quarters. Only someone who is color-blind, sex-blind and ignorant of place would rely on Stacks’ research to explain white poverty in the suburban Rust belt.

Furthermore, “The Truly Disadvantaged” is the anti-thesis of Vance’s outdated “culture of poverty” argument. It argues that economic forces drove blacks to migrate to northern cities in the early 20th century. Later, the decline of manufacturing along with workers’ unions led to “white flight”, leaving concentrated black poverty behind. To Wilson, urban blacks aren’t stuck being poor because they lack strong social ties, i.e. stable parents and positive role models. Rather, social mobility is hard because there are shifty economic forces at play. Most important, these forces are beyond the poor’s control.

There’s a lot of praise on the back cover of this book from writers of “elite” media outlets like the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. But so what? Given the number of paragraphs that Vance spends lecturing his fellow “hillbillies” to take responsibility for their dismal lives and do some heavy pulling by the boostraps, it seems his real audience should be working-class whites.

So I’d like to hear what they think about this book and its policy suggestions… if they could swallow Vance’s brutal critique on “hillbilly” culture, or even its uppity title.

 

Why it was easiest to fall in “love” at 15

Charlie Thompson was tall, blonde and blue-eyed. He played football, got mediocre school grades and didn’t own an SAT prep book. He only ate rice when it was drenched in soy sauce from a take-out container. He watched Family Guy and drove a truck.

In short, he epitomized the American boy my immigrant parents feared would inevitably date their Korean daughter.

Thinking about him now, I doubt we’d have much in common today. But I don’t think I’ve ever been more in love than I was with Charlie Thompson at age 15.

It wasn’t just the hormones. Maybe it was the insecurity of being an adolescent — the discomfort of budding curves, waking up to a pimply reflection –that made it so easy to fall in love with someone else. It was soothing to know someone found me attractive and desirable when I, for some reason, could not.

“We accept the love we deserve.” Wrong.

It’s easiest to fall in love when you actively seek affection and validation. We accept the love we need. A narcissist is notorious for being a player, for bouncing between partners, often juggling several at the same time. When you’re so in love with yourself, you refuse to compromise for others. You can’t be selfish and be in love.

My freshman year of college, I was busy doing so many other things for myself, learning to live on my own, meeting new friends, getting a taste of “collegiate” activities like acapella and ultimate frisbee. I had no time and no need for a significant other. My high school boyfriend’s “love” became another commitment, no, more like a distraction. I felt more confident to do things without him. I didn’t have time for this. I didn’t need this. So I fled.

So maybe what I felt for Charlie Thompson was not love at all, but a twisted validation of my self-worth. Maybe my “love” for him came from his “love” for me; it was simply a souvenir of conquest, like Lt. Raine’s collection of Nazi scalps in Inglorious Basterds. Heh.

This post ended in a very different place than I thought.

 

 

Diversity?

“An old, old, wooden ship…”

Institutions of higher ed love throwing this word around. To be exposed to “diversity” is to be educated. It’s as if the credibility of your degree is directly linked to the diversity of the incoming class.

But what do most schools mean by “diverse”?

Diversity of bodies or diversity of experiences? If an elite education is the key to social mobility, who loses out in the game of increasingly selective admissions? Affirmative action, athletic recruitment, “feeder” high schools — how do they write the rules to skew the odds?