Boxed In

This past Thanksgiving, hundreds of churches across the nation distributed “Boxes of Love” to needy families. Delivering food boxes is a good thing – a worthwhile project. However, research indicates Big Box stores help the poor even more.

In a November Wall Street Journal article, Aaron Belz wrote of the “Boxes of Love” ministry. During Thanksgiving, a network of Southern California churches planned to give away 1,500 boxes to low-income families. Each contained ingredients for a Thanksgiving meal for six. Belz noted the boxes “allow impoverished families to skip food lines and neighborhood pantries and enjoy the holiday in their own homes.”1

“Boxes of Love” started in New York City in 1987, distributing 1,000 boxes to poor families. It is a year-round operation today, offering drug counseling and job training as well as distributing food. It set a goal in 2011 of providing over 156,000 people nationwide with a Thanksgiving box.

It’s hard to counter a “feel good” story with a few hard facts, but T. Norman Van Cott gave it a go in a letter to the editor a few days after Belz’ article. Cott is a Christian and a professor in the Department of Economics at Ball State University. He doesn’t dispute the value of distributing boxes of food to the poor but writes that Big Box stores help the poor even more. “Wal-Mart and its counterparts spread far more holiday-food cheer than do churches and public-service groups.” Studies estimate the presence of Wal-Mart in a community reduces food prices somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent. That’s equivalent to shoppers receiving an additional 5.2 to 7.8 weeks of “free” food shopping. The fact that Wal-Mart’s customer base is skewed toward lower-income shoppers reinforces the beneficent consequences of its price effect.

Estimates by a range of economists indicate that the typical Wal-Mart customer saves about $1,000 per year, and the biggest savers are low-income people. The common indictments made against Wal-Mart – that it underpays its employees, is a gauche blot on the landscape, and drives out “mom and pop” businesses – is “based on gut reactions and prejudices, not careful economic analysis,” writes Robert Whaples, professor of economics at Wake Forest University.2 He cites studies showing Wal-Mart pays its workers on par with competitors, barely influences the overall labor market when it enters a locality, benefits those who don’t even shop there (since competitors cut prices), and the $1,000 saved generally ends up being spent on something else, benefitting the local economy. Wal-Mart isn’t perfect, but most economists have concluded its benefits to society outweigh its costs.

The odd thing is you rarely hear faith communities hailing the benefits of Big Box stores. Churches are often unwittingly boxed into a corner when they define compassion and mercy as only distributing money, food, and clothing. It reveals how they rarely think systems. “Worthy as these projects may be,” Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith observes, “none of them attempt to transform social or cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the existing system.”3

The best way to help the poor is to create an enterprising society with entrepreneurial institutions. This is pointed out in such books as The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship From Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times. It’s a series of essays written by leading economic historians exploring the entrepreneur’s role in society from antiquity to the present. In a review of the book, Michael J. Miller writes, “the key to success isn’t particular individuals but the institutions of society and the incentives they offer.” For instance, lifting the poor into productivity happens best through institutions – in this case, businesses including Big Box stores such as Wal-Mart – and the price saving incentives they offer, especially to lower-income families.

Miller is a theologian and contributor to another collection of articles written by economists, Christian Theology and Market Economics. However, this book includes essays by theologians. Christian Theology and Market Economics is a compilation of essays where writers attempt to reconnect two disciplines – Christian theology and market economics. It includes an essay written by Miller, “Business as a Moral Enterprise.” Christian Theology and Market Economics explains how business has great potential to benefit the greatest number of people, including the poor.

Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem inside the box that created the problem. If faith communities are boxed in, imagining compassion and mercy as mostly involving the distribution of boxes of love, breaking out of the box could begin with commissioning a local businessperson every Sunday. A church could also highlight the benefits to the poor of larger business institutions such as Wal-Mart. This way, a congregation could appreciate how mercy comes in as Big Boxes as well as little ones.

_______________________
1 Aaron Belz, “How Calvinists Spread Thanksgiving Cheer,” The Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2011
2 Robert Whaples, “Cool Capitalism: In praise of entrepreneurship,” Books and Culture, July/August 2011.
3 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 73.

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6 Comments

  1. The food there is less expensive, but at what cost?

    Are the retail cost savings are a result of huge farm subsidies? Do the savings occur at the expense of real nutrition? Are there longer-term and more expensive health ramifications (for the poor)?

    Ultimately, your piece seems to presuppose that the poor are always helped by lower retail prices.

    I’m not suggesting that’s necessarily wrong… I’m just suggesting that’s a HUGE presupposition.

    brody

  2. Brody:

    Your juxtapositions don’t work. Cost savings are due more to mass production, efficiencies in shipping, distribution, and storage, as well as improved food preservation and year ’round food production. There are very few “huge” farm subsidies that I am aware of, although they do of course exist. The retail cost savings do not occur at the expense of “real” nutrition (is there “false” nutrition?) but rather operate on the assumption that when people are treated as responsible, intelligent, and creative, they are more likely to act that way. The poor have been largely stripped of their dignity by paternalistic Progressive payouts over the last 100 years. Now viewed as victims, the enemy becomes crass capitalists rather than coddling Congressmen. My piece does not ultimately say that poor are always helped by lower retail prices but the evidence indicates that, in many cases, they are.

  3. “The retail cost savings do not occur at the expense of “real” nutrition.”

    Twinkee + Coke is less expensive than an apple. This is largely due to corn subsidies.

    I know this is simplistic – and I agree with you about coddling – but my less-informed perspective would say that right and fair pricing is better for the poor (and everyone) than simply “lower pricing.” Seems more sustainable and shalom-seeking.

    And Hostess just filed for bankruptcy.

  4. Brody,
    WalMart is not responsible for the subsidies. WalMart buys their own goods in the same wholesale market as every other grocer, they just have organized their business in a way that allows them to offer products to consumers at lower prices. The nutritional content of their food is not different from what it is when sold at Safeway or any other outlet. This essay simply says that WalMart can sell things cheaper. They sell apples cheaper and they also sell Twinkies cheaper. It’s up to the consumers to decide what to buy.

    Low prices benefit everyone by raising their income in what is known as the “income effect” of falling prices. It just means that for the same amount of income you can buy more stuff. It’s like you have more income. Whether or not the stuff is bad for you is not relevant.

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