In bad economic times, America turns to pickles and beer. But when the good times roll, it's sausages and booze, according to a University of Nebraska agricultural economist who has studied how booms and busts affect our food-buying habits.
Azzeddine M. Azzam, director of the university's Center for Agricultural & Food Industrial Organization, examines what economists call "income elasticity" -- how demand for food and other products varies in response to changes in disposable income.
Not surprisingly, Azzam and other economists have found big swings in the sales of certain products, depending on whether Americans have relatively more or less money in their pockets. The classic example is the demand for new automobiles. Each percentage-point increase in average after-tax income is associated with slightly more than a 2.5 percentage-point increase in car sales and a 0.36 percent drop in spending on public transportation, presumably because people are buying cars or driving more, abandoning the bus and subway.
When it comes to food, America's changeable tastes are more surprising, according to Azzam's analysis of data collected by the National Bureau of Economic Research. When people have more cash in their pockets, they consume less cane sugar (the granulated kind used for baking or coffee) but more candy and chocolate. We're less interested in spaghetti and we buy more ice cream. Processed meat sales soar while the market for dried fruits and vegetables dries up. Demand for beer drops but sales of hard liquor go up. (People also use more manufactured ice, which they presumably need to cool that extra Scotch.)
Some of these patterns are easily explained. "As income rises, what you notice is a penchant for healthy foods as well as for convenient foods," Azzam said. For example, sales of both chicken and frozen foods increase in good times.
But other trends defy easy explanation, Azzam said. Total demand for coffee, for example, drops when disposable income goes up. You might think that a bit more cash would lead people to splurge on java. But that's not what Azzam found. Maybe coffee is comfort food for the financially depressed.
Azzam also found that our tastes for certain kinds of foods changes over our lifetimes, and that income has a role in this, too. "Examples are supermarket-label products and one of my favorite products when I was a graduate student: bulk oatmeal," which tends to be popular among the younger, poorer crowd while packaged cereals become the breakfast food of choice when we grow older and wealthier. (Advertising can change these patterns, he said. The current Campbell's soup ad, featuring the slogan "The way it used to be," is a thinly veiled attempt to use nostalgia to attract aging Baby Boomers who have come to consider Campbell's declasse, Azzam said.)
But he found that some foods are virtually impervious to changes in disposable income. Overall demand for meat remains constant in good times and bad. So does our appetite for cookies and crackers.
"My intuition is that these are class-neutral products," he said. "Whether you are rich or poor, we still enjoy our cookies and saltines" -- plus a juicy steak once in a while.
Locked and Loaded
I don't want to scare you, but your Unconventional Wiz is doubly terrified these days. First, the government sent us scurrying to the store for duct tape and plastic sheeting, and then the Wiz found out what else some of my fellow Washingtonians are doing to prepare themselves for the possibility of a terrorist attack.
A Washington Post survey of 600 randomly selected local residents, conducted earlier this month, found that about two in three were stockpiling water, food and batteries or taking other precautions such as designating a safe room in their homes, just as the government said we should.
But others are going even further, as the survey interviewers learned when they asked respondents if they were doing anything else in response to the recent warning.
"In case of a ground attack, I bought more bullets," said one 21-year-old Maryland man who seems to believe that terrorists attack in infantry-style brigades.
"Armed myself," said a 45-year-old Maryland man, perhaps a foxhole buddy of the first.
"I've sharpened my ax and got my good old muzzle-loading flintlock," said a 76-year-old District man, clearly of pioneer stock.
"I got extra firearms and they are always loaded," said a 22-year-old Virginia woman whose next investment might be to take an NRA gun safety course, which instructs owners of firearms not to store them loaded. Ditto for the 72-year-old Maryland man who said, "Cocked my pistol," when asked what he'd done when the government went from yellow to orange.
Still others among us are loaded, but in a different way.
"Stocked up on Scotch," said one 54-year-old Maryland man of his additional precautions.
Welfare and School
Does welfare make kids dumber? No, that's absurd. But researchers Inhoe Ku and Robert D. Plotnick argue in the latest issue of the journal Demography that the average school-age child who lives in a family receiving welfare doesn't go as far in school as a child living in an equally poor household supported by a paycheck.
They examined data collected between 1968 and 1997 for the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which is conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. They found that the probability of a child graduating from high school diminished by about 11 percent for every year of exposure to welfare in early adolescence (ages 11 to 15) and by about 5 percent for every year of exposure in middle childhood (ages 6 to 10), taking into account factors known to be associated with educational attainment.
There was no relationship between welfare and educational attainment in preschool years, presumably because "the stigma of welfare may not be salient for young children but may seriously affect older children and adolescents," wrote Ku, who was a graduate student of Plotnick's at the University of Washington and who now teaches at Seoul National University in South Korea.