The Real Reason

by Dave Schuler on June 19, 2014

When I read the results of this poll on the relationship between obesity and long-term unemployment (high blood pressure and high cholesterol are also positively correlated with long-term unemployment) my immediate reaction was to wonder whether obesity was not in fact a proxy for race. Consider this finding about those who are among the long-term unemployed from the Urban Institute:

…we see that blacks, relative to other groups, are disproportionately represented among long-term unemployed and discouraged workers. They make up 22.6 percent of the long-term unemployed, 10.5 percent of the employed, 25.9 percent of discouraged workers, and 15.0 percent of newly unemployed workers. Hispanics make up a somewhat smaller share of the long-term unemployed (19.0 percent), the employed (15.7 percent), and the discouraged (20.2 percent) than of the newly unemployed (23.1 percent).

There are all sorts of factors that are in reality proxies for race which confound findings of this sort. Zip code can be a proxy for race. Level of educational attainment can be a proxy for race.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mercer June 19, 2014 at 11:42 am

West Virginia is frequently cited as one of the fattest states. It was 94 percent white in the 2010 census. I think class is a factor more then race.

michael reynolds June 19, 2014 at 11:51 am

Yeah, I agree that obesity is a marker for poverty. Also quite possibly associated with the rural lifestyle. You don’t see many fat people in Marin County – rich, white, suburban. But drive out into the countryside in Iowa or Wisconsin and you’ll see a whole lot of very fat white folks. Of course black folks have a higher level of obesity overall, but that probably goes back to class.

Dave Schuler June 19, 2014 at 12:22 pm

The best information at hand at this point does not support the associations you’re suggesting:

• An inverse association exists between family income and obesity prevalence among white females (all ages) and white males (aged 2–19 years), but the association is weak or positive (black men aged ≥20 years) among other groups.
• Racial/ethnic differences in obesity prevalence persist after controlling for differences in family income.

I don’t know why that should be the case but I can offer some conjectures. There may some be some relationship between traditional diets and genetic selection. We know that’s a factor in some instances, e.g. far fewer people of primarily European descent are lactose intolerant than people of sub-Saharan descent. It could be that people of sub-Saharan African descent do not do well on European diets.

One of the sad results of the bad history of the study of racial differences is that health issues affecting minorities go under-studied.

It might be that obesity is a proxy for income but it might not just be a proxy for income.

michael reynolds June 19, 2014 at 1:41 pm

If you control the African-American population for income you still have to look at lingering effects from a culture that is in large degree formed by poverty. Diet preferences tends to be formed early in life, so a black lawyer today is still likely to have come from poverty within a generation or two.

I’m kind of fascinated by the persistence of cultural patterns that make no rational sense and are often self-destructive. I suppose I’m too far in the opposite direction, too quick to cut the cords of the past. I’m not sure you can build a civilization out of people like me, but people should still be able to take a step back and assess rationally whether dietary patterns learned in childhood – and many more patterns, such as religious faith, political allegiance, etc… — make any sense for the individual living in the present.

But people do not like to challenge their own programming. They conflate their input with their core essence as a human. They think they are what they were made to be. But they can choose to be different, to deprogram in effect, to strive for a pre-suppositionless state and from there rebuild.

PD Shaw June 19, 2014 at 4:20 pm

African-American culture is Southern culture, or a product of it, particularly food, but also in matters of religious and musical heritage. And its not as if a lot of Southerners aren’t one or two generations away from poverty; (I’m not a Southerner, but I’m two generations away, though that may largely be Great Depression induced poverty).

Obesity rate % (m/f) in 2001-2002:

Non-South Whites: 16% / 15%
Non-South African-American: 20% / 15%
Southern Whites: 19% / 19%
Southern African-American: 23% / 29%

Compare with 1994-1995:
Non-Southern White: 10% / 6%
Non-Southern African-American: 11% / 11%
Southern Whites: 14% / 8%
Southern African-American: 13% / 15%

http://srdc.msstate.edu/ridge/projects/recipients/02_warner_final.pdf

For Southern African-American women, the obesity rate nearly doubled in seven years!?! Migration/ and immigration probably confound precise conclusions, but there does appear to be an element of culture and race here.

Mercer June 19, 2014 at 5:17 pm

I have relatives from WV. When I look at photos of their ancestors and other residents from fifty to a hundred years ago the leaner bodies people had in the past is clear compared to the current residents. This is a region that has had little immigration in decades so the difference is not genetic.

PD Shaw June 19, 2014 at 5:49 pm

@Mercer, it doesn’t mean that genetics aren’t involved.

Top Ten Obesity prevalence (self-reported) by country:

1. U.S. 34.3%
2. Mexico 30.0%
3. New Zealand 26.5%
4. Scotland 25.5%
5. Ireland 25.0%
6. Northern Ireland 24.0%
7. England 22.0%
8. Greece 21.9%
9. Australia 21.7%
10. Wales 21.0%

. . .

29. Italy 10.2%
30. Norway 9.0%

http://www.noo.org.uk/securefiles/140619_2335//International_Comparisons_Obesity_Prevalence2.pdf

West Virginians are probably mostly of Scots-Irish and English descent.

PD Shaw June 19, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I should note the obesity rates at 4:20 p.m. are for adolescents. Those at 5:49 are for adults.

Guarneri June 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm

I think Fat Bastard is skewing the Scots statistics……..and I resent that.

James Joyner June 21, 2014 at 6:33 am

@PD Shaw: The 1994-95 and 2001-2002 comparisons are apples and oranges. The definition of “obesity” changed in 1998 with the introduction of the body mass index standard.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: