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Richard Morin

Living on the Edge

By Richard Morin
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page B05

Fully half of all Americans and five out of six African Americans have received food stamps at some point in their adult lives, say two researchers who have found that temporary bouts of poverty are surprisingly common occurrences for many, if not most, Americans.

"While the use of food stamps is often brief, of those who have used food stamps once, about three-quarters will use them again in a different year," said sociologist Thomas Hirschl of Cornell University. "These findings are in sharp contrast to the belief that the use of the nation's food nutrition safety net is something that happens to someone else and is atypical of the American experience."

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Remarkably, the findings of Hirschl and colleague Mark R. Rank of Washington University in St. Louis likely understate the number of Americans who have sometimes found themselves to be "food insecure," a starkly bureaucratic phrase that means having "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable food in socially acceptable ways."

That's because only about half of those Americans eligible for food stamps actually get them. Studies suggest that many don't participate because they don't know how to apply, while others are reluctant to sign up because of the "sense of stigma attached to participating in a means-tested welfare program," Rank and Hirschl report in a paper to be published in the December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

The food stamp program, which began as a pilot project in 1961 and became a full-fledged program in 1964 as one of the opening salvos in President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, enables low-income families to buy nutritious food with coupons and electronic transfer cards similar to ATM debit cards. Recipients are somewhat limited as to what kind of products they may buy -- no booze, no Ding Dongs -- and must purchase the food in one of approximately 150,000 authorized stores nationwide. The program is not without its problems: Federal investigators estimate that about 10 percent of food stamps are issued to people who shouldn't get them or are illegally traded in for cash at retail stores.

In fiscal year 2003, government statistics show, about 21 million Americans received food stamps at a program cost of about $21 billion. But Rank and Hirschl wondered how many people had received help from the program sometime in their adult lives. So they turned to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a University of Michigan longitudinal study that collected data regularly between 1968 and 1997 from a sample of thousands of households nationally. In an earlier research project, they had used the same data to determine that two in three Americans had been poor (as defined by the federal poverty index) at some point during their lifetime.

Hirschl and Rank found that 51 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 65 will use food stamps at least once as adults. Not surprisingly, less advantaged Americans were far more likely to use food stamps than other adults. Nearly two in three adults without a high school degree had used food stamps, including nine of 10 black women in that education category. The numbers went down as the education level went up, but graduation from high school was still no guarantee of escape: Nearly four in 10 of better-educated adults -- 38 percent -- took advantage of food stamps, including one in four white men with at least a high school diploma.

"The patterns that emerged from our analysis are particularly troubling in light of the fact that food insecurity has been shown to be closely related to various health problems, including an increased risk in the development of chronic diseases, impairment of psychological and cognitive functioning among children and a greater likelihood of self-reporting health status as poor," Rank said in a statement released with the study.

Disclosing the Dirt About Full Disclosure

Is honesty always the best policy? Of course. But too much honesty -- at least in the form of full disclosure of potential or apparent conflicts of interest -- can do more damage at times than good, new research suggests.

For years, it's been almost axiomatic in certain business circles that coming clean is the best way for dispensers of advice and other experts to inoculate themselves against conflict-of-interest charges. The public is reassured by self-disclosure, the theory goes; those who reveal their financial or other conflicts will go the extra mile to avoid the impression of giving tainted advice. Thus, medical journals now ask researchers to disclose the sources of their research funding and TV financial-news shows require stock analysts to reveal any conflict of interest.

Common sense, right? One problem: "Psychological factors . . . may undermine disclosure's effectiveness as a remedy. . . and may even cause disclosure to backfire, harming rather than helping the recipients of advice," claim professors Daylian M. Cain, George Loewenstein and Don A. Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in a paper presented recently in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management.

They based their claims on the results of an experiment they conducted with 146 Carnegie Mellon University students. Participants were divided randomly into "advisers" and "estimators," and were asked to estimate the value of cash in six jars containing amounts ranging from $10.01 to $27.06. The advisers were permitted to handle, but not open, each jar and to study it for as long as they liked. They then recorded their estimate of the amount in each jar, which was then delivered on a piece of paper as a suggestion to an estimator. The estimators then got about a 10-second look at each of the jars, and made their own estimates.

To simulate real-world conditions, the study participants earned small sums of money based on their performance. The estimators' pay depended solely on how accurate their guesses were, while the payoff to the advisers varied. There were three different scenarios:

• Advisers and estimators were told they would be paid based on the accuracy of the estimators' assessments -- conditions that encouraged both advisers and estimators to make their guesses as solid as possible.

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