Food Stamps and the Price of the Minimum Amount of Food in 1935 England and Today

October 15, 2013
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Catchy title, no?

Anyway, between the government shutdown and the debt crisis, I’ve found looking at investments rather dispiriting, as the ensuing chaos in the markets would override even the soundest of analysis. So, I’ve been keeping my head down by catching up on my reading at least until this all blows over.

One of the things that has been affected since even before the shutdown was the deep cuts to food stamps in a bill passed by the House, and of course with the shutdown and debt ceiling debates still unresolved, the existing federal food benefit programs are also hanging over the abyss.

dates-300x285But this put me in mind of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, where the author visits a mining town in the north of England to comment on the dirt and poverty there, and also the nature of public assistance, which in the Depression-era 1935 was a non-trivial subject. One issue that concerned him was a “disgusting” public debate over how small an unemployed person’s food budget had to be without actually causing them to die of malnutrition. One dietitian put it at five shillings, ninepence, while a more generous one had five shillings, nine and a half pence. But it also led to some snooty letters to the editor about how four shillings should be more than sufficient, including a sample menu.

So, out of my own interest, I thought I would see how well this weekly food budget withstands the test of time, and how it compares with the food stamps allowance of today, using my local Safeway as a source.

George Orwell’s original list was

3 wholemeal loaves, 1 shilling
1/2 lb. margarine, 2 1/2 p
1/2 lb. dripping (beef fat), 3 p
1 lb. cheese, 7 p
1 lb. onions, 1 1/2 p
1 lb. carrots, 1 1/2 p
1 lb. broken biscuits, 4 p
2 lb. dates, 6 p
1 tin evaporated milk, 5 p
10 oranges, 5 p

As he says, if one were challenged to extract as much nutrition as possible from four shillings, this would be about it. He also points out that none of these ingredients require cooking (or refrigeration, although in the ’30s that was probably typical), and that trying to live on this regime for any length of time would practically drive one to suicide.

But if we modern people wanted to live on lard-and-raw-onion sandwiches (which were actually a thing, mentioned in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair as the lunch of an impoverished family of meat packers) and the occasional orange for dessert, the prices would be as follows:

3 loaves of bread $3-4.50,
1/2 lb. margarine: $1-1.16
1/2 lb. lard: $1.50
1 lb. cheese: $3-4
1 lb. onions $1.50
1 lb. carrots $1
1 lb. private-label vanilla wafers or animal crackers, $3.25
2 lb. bananas $1.50
1 box of evaporated milk $4.50 for 3 quarts’ worth.
5 lb. of oranges $8.

Total: $28.55-31.21.

I have made some substitutions, obviously. The range of prices in this list deals with whether one gets the club card discount. I have substituted lard for dripping because cow fat is not commonly sold retail. I’m not aware that one can specifically buy broken cookies, so I went with a close analogue. As for the bananas, dates may have been a staple in 1935 but in California they seem to be a luxury item at $8 a pound, while bananas are 69-79 cents a pound depending on the time of year.  Also, I don’t know how much evaporated milk is in a tin, and I suppose that some savings could probably be made in the orange department too, but too many substitutions would defeat the purpose of the comparison. I believe that most of the above foods, apart from the wafers/animal crackers, are not subject to sales tax.

According to the Internet, the average food stamp allowance in California is $149 a month, or $34.38 per average week. Looking up at the total, this food budget does allow for the above menu with an amazing $3-6 a week to spare, although in all fairness one should probably find a way to squeeze in a multivitamin ($9 for 100 pills).

The next question is how well this menu holds up against inflation, and there are two ways of doing it. The first way is to use the British inflation rate since 1935 and then converting it into dollars, and the second way is to convert into dollars in 1935 and to use the American inflation rates. Under the first method, 4 shillings in 1935 are worth 12.04 pounds today, which works out to $19.26. Under the second method, 4 shillings in 1935 were worth almost exactly a dollar, and a dollar in 1935 is worth $17.07 today. In both cases, the inflation-adjusted amount is below the present cost of the food.

I have to say that this result surprises me; I would have expected that advances in food production technology and the Green Revolution in fertilizers would have lowered the overall cost of food, but then again it is commonly criticized that more and more of the cost of food nowadays is the cost of transporting it to the market (especially true of bananas). Still, we in the modern era have the means to grow more food, store it for longer periods without spoiling, and have in the United States a superabundance of food, and yet we are less generous than the British were in the ’30s.

But what concerns me as well is that this menu was proposed not by a dietitian, but by a letter to the editor, which Orwell points out, may not have been genuine because no one could live on such a diet for a significant length of time without going insane. The actual dietitian’s minimum was nearly 50% higher than this weekly expenditure. And yet, based on the current food stamp allowance, which, recall, is itself in imminent danger of being cut off, the proposed menu barely fits at all. In a nation that exports literally millions of tons of food, I am surprised to hear that supplies of food to those on public assistance are lower than they were in the depths of a Depression despite 80 years of progress.

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