Atlantic Cities

The High Cost of Cutting Food Stamps: Best #Cityreads of the Week

The High Cost of Cutting Food Stamps: Best #Cityreads of the Week
Reuters

A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

"Waiting for the 8th"  Eli Saslow, Washington Post

She believed you could be poor without appearing poor, so Raphael Richmond, 41, attached her eyelash extensions, straightened her auburn wig and sprayed her neck with perfume as she reached for another cigarette. "For my nerves," she explained, even though doctors already had written eight prescriptions to help her combat the wears of stress. She blew smoke into the living room and waited until her eldest daughter, Tiara, 22, descended the stairs in new sneakers and a flat-brimmed baseball cap.

"I look okay?" Tiara asked.

"Fresh and proper," Raphael said, and then they left to stand in line for boxes of donated food and day-old bread.

It was Thursday, which meant giveaways at a place called Bread for the City. Fridays were free medical care at the clinic in Southeast Washington. Saturdays were the food pantry at Ambassador Baptist Church. The 1st of each month was a disability check, the 2nd was government cash assistance and the 8th was food stamps. "November FREEBIES," read a flier attached to their fridge, a listing of daily handouts that looked the same as October's freebies, and September's freebies, and the schedule of dependency that had helped sustain Raphael's family for three generations and counting.

Except this month had introduced a historic shift. The nation's food stamp program had just undergone its biggest cut in 50 years, the beginning of an attempt by Congress to dramatically shrink the government's fastest-growing entitlement program, which had tripled in cost during the past decade to almost $80 billion each year. Starting in November, more than 47 million Americans had experienced decreases in their monthly benefit, averaging about 7 percent. For the Richmonds, it was more. Not far across the Anacostia River from their house, Congress was already busy debating the size and ramifications of the next cut, likely to be included in the farm bill early next year.

"Conservatives' New Enemy: Bikes," Jordan Michael Smith, Boston Globe

Even before Toronto Mayor Rob Ford became internationally famous for being videotaped smoking crack, he was known as a City Hall version of Bluto Blutarsky of “Animal House”—swearing in public, proudly overeating, guzzling booze. His boorishness is so conspicuous and well documented that it raises the question: Who elected this guy? And why?

The answer, in large part, comes down to transit. Ford is famously pro-car, and his strongest support came from suburbs outside downtown Toronto, where voters drive into the city during the day and return by car in the evening. One political scientist found that the strongest predictor of whether someone voted for Ford in the 2010 mayoral election was the person’s method of commuting: Car commuters were Ford voters; everyone else wasn’t. Ford repaid their loyalty by declaring on his first day as mayor that the “war on cars” was over; he abolished the vehicle registration tax and announced a plan to kill light rail in the city simply because, he said, streetcars “are just a pain in the rear end.”

But Ford reserves special venom for the menace called the bicycle. He is perhaps the most antibike politician in the world. In 2007, he told the Toronto City Council that roads were designed for only buses, cars, and trucks. If cyclists got killed on roads, “it’s their own fault at the end of the day,” he said. He compared biking on a city street to swimming with sharks—“sooner or later you’re going to get bitten.” He once summarized his views in City Hall succinctly: “Cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.”

"Expensive Cities Are Killing Creativity," Sarah Kendzior, Al Jazeera

On May 5, musician Patti Smith was asked what advice she had for young people trying to make it in New York City. The long-time New Yorker's take? Get out. "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling," she said. "New York City has been taken away from you."

Smith was not the only New Yorker to reject the city that had nurtured artists for decades. In October, musician David Byrne argued that "the cultural part of the city - the mind - has been usurped by the top 1 percent". Under Michael Bloomberg, New York's first billionaire mayor, homelessness and rent both soared, making one of the world's centres of creative and intellectual life unliveable for all but the richest.

"A Model World," Jon Turney, Aeon Magazine

Because it’s usually easy to perform experiments in chemistry, molecular simulations have developed in tandem with accumulating lab results and enormous increases in computing speed. It is a powerful combination. But there are other fields where modelling benefits from checking back with a real, physical system. Aircraft and Formula One car designs, though tested aerodynamically on computers, are still tweaked in the wind-tunnel (often using a model of the old-fashioned kind). Marussia F1 (formerly Virgin Racing) likewise uses computational fluid dynamics to cut down on expensive wind-tunnel testing, but not as a complete substitute. Nuclear explosion simulations were one of the earliest uses of computer modelling, and, of course, since the test-ban treaty of 1996, simulated explosions are the only ones that happen. Still, aspects of the models continue to be real-world tested by creating extreme conditions with high-power laser beams.

More often, though — and more worryingly for policymakers — models and simulations crop up in domains where experimentation is harder in practice, or impossible in principle. And when testing against reality is not an option, our confidence in any given model relies on other factors, not least a good grasp of underlying principles. In epidemiology, for example, plotting the spread of an infectious disease is simple, mathematically speaking. The equations hinge on the number of new cases that each existing case leads to — the crucial quantity being the reproduction number, R0. If R0 is bigger than one, you have a problem. Get it below one, and your problem will go away.

Such modelling proved impressively influential during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic in the UK, even as it called for an unprecedented cull of livestock. The country’s chief scientific adviser, David King, assured prime minister Tony Blair that the cull would ‘turn exponential growth to exponential decay within two days’. It worked, freeing Blair to call a general election after a month’s postponement — an unexpected result from a computer model.

"Meet the Architecture Lobby," Samuel Medina, Metropolis

Architecture has a big problem, and its name is labor. Everyone in the profession knows it, and yet no one wants to talk about it. In a fierce industry where overwork and undervalued labor are elevated as virtues, those architects—particularly younger architects fresh out of school—who are moved to speak up are quickly dissuaded from doing so. The message is simple: forget your social life; make do with your meager wage; pay your dues. If you can't handle all of that, then architecture isn't for you.

But why do things have to be this way? Why should architects sacrifice proper compensation and a better quality of life, not to mention psychological stability, for the dangling carrots of fame and recognition? Why do architects persist in clinging to a romanticized ideal of the profession, a rose-colored view that, by definition, trumpets marginalization and exploitation?

"Food Stamps and Place: New Cuts Could Dry Up Food Desert Improvements," Benjamin Chrisinger, Planetizen

To understand how food stamps - an inherently “people-based” policy - could create strong place-based effects, we should first consider a few facts about how benefits are redeemed.  First, SNAP dollars largely flow through supermarkets: the most recent government reports [PDF] say over 80 percent of benefits are spent at supermarkets and supercenters.  Numerous studies show low-income consumers bypass small stores for most food shopping, even when supermarkets aren’t close to home or personal vehicles easily accessible.  To get to supermarkets, residents of food deserts have been documented catching rides with friends and neighbors, taking public transit, or hiring cabs.  Though promising initiatives exist, such as efforts to encourage SNAP spending at healthy corner stores and farmers’ markets, these retailers still represent only a tiny share of total purchasing.  The bundle of goods and services offered by supermarkets is a strong pull, especially for individuals and families with constraints on time and money.

Top image: Protesters hold replicas of food stamps during a rally in support of higher pay for low-wage earners outside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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