Sunday, February 21, 2010

Taxes Scorching the Food Deserts

I applaud First Lady Michelle Obama for using the bully pulpit of the White House to raise awareness of childhood obesity. The web site Let's Move promotes physical education and a healthy diet.

The office of the First Lady has a long and notable tradition of raising awareness of issues. The history of First Ladies setting policy has not been as bright as the history of promoting causes.

The culture war about childhood obesity revolves around the role of government in fighting obesity with the left arguing that we should look toward government first, and the right wanting free market solutions.

A balanced approach would examine the faults of both the market and government.

For example, the Let's Move effort brings up the troubling problem of accessibility. The web site claims the follow:

More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket.

Let's Move calls this accessibility problem "food deserts."

Clearly, there is something wrong in the market if the market fails to provide basic access to food for a large portion of the population.

This statistic seems odd. It is in human nature to seek food. It is highly unlikely that a free people would converge on places where there is nothing to eat!

I find this observation (that large numbers of people are doing something counter to human nature) to be a sign that we are not in a free market.

In examining this problem, we should start by searching for artificial things in the market that has people acting against their nature.

In Salt Lake County, I've noticed an odd trend. The strict zoning laws in Salt Lake City created a structure where large apartment were built in the unincorporated areas. That is our high density housing was built in areas without access to stores, parks or other infrastructure.

Driving around the valley, one finds many high density apartments that are cut off from the rest of the community like a pariah.

Zoning laws also prevent people from transforming single family houses into duplexes or adding extensions that they would rent out. In days of old, it was common for people to rent out the basement after the kids left. Basesement apartments are now illegal in some sections of town.

This creates a strange situation where the natural aging of a population leads to a drop in population density. This drop in population destroys the market for the local grocery store. So as homeowners unite to keep apartment dwellers away, they fail to realize that they signed the fate of their quaint neighborhood store.

There also appears to be forces that drive stores from inner city neighborhoods. Cities tend to sock local stores with an onerous tax base. I used to shop out of the city to buy groceries because the prices were higher and the taxes were higher.

NOTE, some big box stores appear to have a policy of locating their boxes outside city limits, or across county lines to get lower taxes.

My guess is that, if one were to calculate all of the payroll, property, and sales taxes, one would find the regressive situation where the taxes per calorie of food a neighborhood grocer to be substantially higher than the taxes collected on the same calories of food from a box on the edge of town.

In other words, I think one finds that the "food deserts" were created by zoning and tax policies.

People seek food. There must be something unnatural in the market to create food deserts.

A balanced approach to providing access to food would start by identifying all the forces cause food deserts. If there are unnatural forces such as strict zoning laws that force people to settle away from food, or regressive taxes that causes food to cost substantially more in poor areas, then government policy should work to address these inequities.

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