Michelle Obama is concerned about the growing child obesity problem—and well she should. And of course, the government has to be part of this problem. “BMI measurement for all children” and “Improving access to healthy, affordable food, by eliminating ‘food deserts’ in urban and rural America.”
There is absolutely no question that there is a very serious child obesity problem—one that will bankrupt Obamacare (and practically any other health care system that you can imagine). But once again, today’s liberals are intent on the government solving a problem that a previous generation of liberals a generation ago unwittingly created.
Let us marvel in the first generation in the history of mankind where obesity is a problem of poverty. Throughout history, getting enough calories in your diet to even be chubby usually meant you were nobility, if not royalty. King Henry VIII went from a fit and vigorous young man to a guy who needed armor with a 54 inch waistline. If you were a peasant—even what today might be considered middle class—you worked too hard and food was too expensive for obesity to be common.
I’ve seen the change in my lifetime—and Michelle Obama acknowledges the problem is part of a “30-year trend.” When I was in elementary school, I had very few classmates who were even chubby. There was one kid out of 400 in my elementary school who would be considered fat (and probably not even obese)—and he was from Turkey. There are many causes of the increasing obesity problem, and this article focuses on one very substantial cause—but let me emphasize that it is not the only cause—just one that liberals caused.
One of the advantages kids had back then was mothers who were home, and actively involved in child rearing. Even mothers who had to work full-time (like mine) still managed to play an active role in encouraging healthy dietary habits. I was limited to one soft drink a day. Dinner included reasonable portions of meat, a starch, and vegetables—and as much as I hated overcooked vegetables, I was expected to eat them. Desserts were infrequent in our house—perhaps once a week. Nearly every other kid that I knew came from a similar home, with parents making similar efforts to encourage self-discipline and healthy eating.
Today, large numbers of elementary school kids are getting themselves ready for school without a parent. When my wife substituted at our son’s elementary school in California, kids were showing up at school with donuts for breakfast—because both parents had left the house hours earlier, expecting their kids to make their own way. After school, too many elementary school kids are returning to empty homes, and eating for comfort. I recall when my wife and I were out looking at houses one day in California, the realtor let us into one house where a fairly fat elementary school kid was sitting in front of the TV with a huge bowl of potato chips. Many unsupervised kids get in lots of trouble: early sex; smoking; alcohol. Are we surprised that bad eating habits are part of the problem?
When I was 10, most elementary school kids came home to a mother. Today, this is a surprisingly rare situation. When my wife was staying home to raise our children in the 1980s and early 1990s, she described the various neighborhoods in which we lived as ghost towns from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM—at which point the kids would come home to empty houses.
This transformation didn’t just “happen.” It was the result of a conscious decision by liberals to actively promote the idea that no woman was really “fulfilled” unless she had a full-time career—and staying home and raising kids wasn’t part of the career track. Through active propaganda campaigns and passage of laws banning sex discrimination in employment, liberals destroyed the postwar social consensus that a man would normally be the primary breadwinner.
Part of what helped destroy that postwar consensus was that there were a lot of well-educated women who wanted to be more than just mothers. Another factor was the rise of no-fault divorce, which made it much easier for guys to dump their families. Women who had been content to be homemakers now had no choice but full-time employment.
One unfortunate side effect of this dramatic increase in the number of women in the workforce was unsurprising: an increasing competition for resources. What happens to pay scales if you increase the number of workers competing for the same number of jobs? This graph shows what happened to family income for one income families, two income families, and so on, inflation adjusted. Note how one income family incomes stop growing in the early 1970s—while two income families do not. Many Moms wanted a traditional family, where they stayed home and kept the kids out of trouble (including with food). Now these traditional families were competing for housing and other resources with “modern” two wage earner families.
Especially for those with low skilled, low wage jobs before every woman working became the social goal—this was devastating. It was bad for male primary breadwinners, who often could no longer raise a family on one income. It also meant that when divorce happened (often aggravated by financial struggles), a mother joining the workforce with even less job skills than her husband was utterly impoverished. Even if child support payments came in (and often they did not), it was simply impossible to raise a family on her low skill wages—and who will supervise the eating habits of her children while she is away at work?
Some years ago, I watched a fascinating debate about feminism organized by William F. Buckley, with a surprising participant: Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Professor Fox-Genovese was a nationally recognized expert on labor history, and definitely a liberal—but she made the point that feminism for women such as herself, with graduate degrees working in high status positions, had been a major win. For the majority of women—those trying to raise kids in a trailer park with low wages and no father—it had been a major disaster. I would argue that while childhood obesity has many roots, the good deed of 1960s liberalism—the insistence that every woman with small children should be working, and her kids in daycare—is a big part of the problem.