Fining Parents For Having Obese Children Will Solve Exactly Zero Problems

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child standing on bathroom scaleChildren from low-income families are some of the most likely to be overweight and obese. If the government wants to work to lower rates of childhood obesity, there’s a lot of ways to tackle the problem: fighting food scarcity, raising minimum wages, offering opportunities for exercise and fitness at school. Conversely, if they’re not really interested in solving the problem at all, they could start charging parents a fine for having obese kids.

According to NPR, a new law proposed in Puerto Rico would set up a system of punishment for families whose children clock in as overweight. The first time, parents receive a warning. After six months, if they haven’t cleared up their child’s case of The Fats, the parents get fined $500. And if there’s still no improvement after another six months, they’re charged another $800. I’m all for progressive income taxes, but the concept of progressive inseam taxes is pretty messed up.

This plan pays lip service to the idea of fighting childhood obesity, but in reality, I think it’s only likely to have the opposite effect. First of all, a family on the line for $1300 in fines has $1300 less to spend on healthy food. On what planet do you look at the contributions of structural inequality to poor health and say, “Yeah, I think we can make this better by making things even more unequal?”

Secondly, leaving aside the fact that some kids are overweight or obese because of medical conditions that can’t be fixed by any number of fines: imagine that you’re the overweight child whose family might have to pay more than $1000 because some lawmakers don’t like the way you look. Imagine the stress it would put on a child to know that, and then tell me again how this law has kids’ “best interests” at heart.

There are lots of ways we can teach our kids about being healthy. (Notice how I said “healthy” instead of “thin”–waist size is not a direct measurement of healthiness, even if that gross oversimplification is attractive to legislators.) We can work on making healthy food affordable and available, we can raise the minimum wage and provide better child care options so low-income parents have money to spend on food in the first place, we can require schools to provide more recess time and to offer physical education classes more than once a week. Or we can make the problem worse by financially punishing parents based on their kids’ BMIs … but if that’s the way we choose to go, let’s stop pretending that kids’ health is the top priority. Laws like this aren’t set up to help children; they’re set up to punish poverty–and for lawmakers to high-five each other on taking tough stances.

(Image: Andrew Lewis / Getty)