Loosening Street Food Regulations Helps Poor People

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Food trucks have acquired something of a yuppie brand in recent years, because yuppies like to buy the food, but on the business owner side mobile food vending is anything but a yuppie pursuit. It’s really hard work!

Policymakers need to understand the mobile vending phenomenon as a bridge between establishing some cooking skills at home and establishing a full-service restaurant. The food truck or cart or bike entails less overhead than a traditional restaurant, so it’s easier for a person with a good family recipe and some hustle to get a business off the ground with less capital than would be required to start a traditional storefront restaurant.

As such, designing your city regulations to promote mobile vending helps the people in your community who don’t have great access to traditional sources of capital start businesses. Many local officials with otherwise progressive views on state and national issues sometimes get it in their heads that the progressive thing to do is block or dull competition between street food vendors and traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, in response to whining from those traditional businesses, but there’s nothing progressive about that. Food trucks and carts are just as clean as, if not cleaner than, traditional restaurants and don’t need the superfluous health regulations that incumbent restaurant owners often recommend for them.

Here’s a cool Monkey Cage post from Alisha Holland summarizing a forthcoming article on street vending politics in Latin America showing that Latin American politicians and voters have a better understanding of the distributional issues than their counterparts in the US:

Lastly, if non-enforcement functions as a type of informal welfare system, then politicians and citizens should think of it as they do other social welfare programs. I interviewed dozens of local politicians and found that more than two-thirds avoid enforcement due to its “social costs.” They also worry about appearing insensitive to the poor’s needs. Chilean politicians, for example, feared that enforcement would make them “worse than Pinochet.”

Politicians’ concerns are real. As a part of an ongoing book project on informal welfare policies, I ran a public opinion survey and found that candidates who propose to enforce against street vendors are seen as unlikely to favor the poor’s interests in office. Poor voters also say that they are less likely to support politicians who enforce than those who let vendors work unchecked. The takeaway is that enforcement has political costs. Not all politicians are willing to take this hit.

This entry was posted in Economic Development, Issues.

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