Economy

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  • How The Media Covered A Day Without Immigrants

    Analysis From Morning Cable Shows: Fox Performed The Worst

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    On February 16, businesses around the country closed and many immigrants vowed to not spend any money in a demonstration known as “A Day Without Immigrants” to highlight the vital contributions immigrants make to the U.S. economy and culture. The demonstration was a response to anti-immigrant sentiment and policies enacted by President Donald Trump and his team. During their morning coverage -- from 6 a.m. and noon -- MSNBC and CNN both sent reporters to cover the protest, while Fox News dedicated less than a minute to the story during a series of headlines.

    The New York Times reported that “what began as a grass-roots movement quickly reached the highest levels of federal government,” noting that the effort spread from places like construction sites in New York City all the way to federal government offices including in the Pentagon. The Washington Post wrote that the strike is a response “to a new administration that has taken a hard-line stance on immigration policies.” According to NPR, the protest also comes “after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents alarmed immigrant rights advocates by arresting some 680 people in raids across the U.S. last week.”

    On morning cable news, MSNBC and CNN both sent reporters to cover the boycott, with MSNBC providing the only original interview related to the strike among the cable news channels. In the span of the 6 hours analyzed by Media Matters, MSNBC dedicated only close to 4 minutes to the story, while CNN dedicated just over 1 minute and 30 seconds. Fox News’ Heather Nauert reported on the story twice for a total of 40 seconds, both in news headline reads during Fox & Friends. MSNBC was the only network to feature the story in more than one show, mentioning it in three.

    Fox News’ coverage dismissed the movement as immigrants “giving themselves a day off work,” and FoxNews.com quoted anti-immigrant hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) as one of the protest’s “several detractors.”

    On the other hand, MSNBC’s Gadi Schwartz interviewed immigrant business owner Lorena Cantarovici in Denver, CO, who shut down her restaurant as part of the protest. Cantarovici recounted her story of coming to the country with “just a backpack, less than $300,” and described how she is in the process of opening her third restaurant. Her interview illustrated the job opportunities immigrants create for others and highlighted the real life consequences of Trump’s policies, with Cantarovici adding that she is “part of the model of the small business economy here”:

    LORENA CANTAROVICI: Maria Empanada is an American business, and it's a dream that came through an immigrant that came to this country trying to look for a better life. So this is not something that is made only by me. I have a team. And all those people have the same ethic, and they want to work hard, and they want to be part of this dream also. So, I don't want to forget that I'm an immigrant. And that's why I'm supporting this day.

    GADI SCHWARTZ: And you were saying that an immigrant started this. That's you. You came here with a backpack on. Tell me a little bit about that.

    CANTAROVICI: Just with a backpack, less than $300, and now I'm opening my third location very soon. I am giving job opportunities to people. I’m trying to motivate them every single day, and I'm part of the model of the small business economy here. So yeah, that's what we are doing.

    SCHWARTZ: And what does this mean to the people that work here? What have they told you?

    CANTAROVICI: Well, the decision was made by all of us, and it was very important for me to hear my people, right? So this is a very specific way to demonstrate that immigrants here are very important, and a day without immigrants can create a very big impact. So this is a country that is made by immigrants. Imagine all of us making just a silence for a day? I decided to make a silence.

    Right-wing media figures, however, took to Twitter to criticize the protest. Conservative author Dinesh D’Souza asked, “Will illegals guarantee not to rob or murder any US citizens today? #DayWithoutIllegals.” Right-wing radio host Steve Deace tweeted that “we are not a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of citizens. #DayWithoutImmigrants.” Radio host Wayne Dupree wrote that “anyone falling for this stupid day should be deported”:

    As of 2013, “more than 41 million immigrants lived in the U.S.,” which makes coverage of immigration of crucial interest to a significant segment of the total population. Meanwhile, news outlets elevated nativist hate groups and their xenophobic sentiments throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and afterwards. Trump started his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals, and harassment against immigrants was the “top type of harassment reported” in a spike after Election Day. Despite reporting on “A Day Without Immigrants” for only 4 minutes, MSNBC set the bar for the protest’s cable coverage by highlighting an immigrant voice and covering the story throughout the day.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched Snapstream’s CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News transcripts between 6 a.m. and 12 p.m. on February 16 for mentions of the word “immigrant” or the phrase “day without.”

  • Wall Street Journal Columnist Praises Trump’s $100 Billion Gift To Wall Street

    The Journal’s Greg Ip Calls Trump’s Watering Down Of Consumer Protections “Regulatory Relief”

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    The Wall Street Journal’s top financial columnist praised President Donald Trump for issuing executive orders aimed to scale back consumer protections in the financial industry because the rollbacks would boost profits for big banks, ignoring the reality that the rules were put in place to protect the public, not the banking industry.

    The Journal’s chief economics commentator, Greg Ip, hailed recent actions by Trump to curb government oversight of big banks in a February 8 column, claiming this would provide “regulatory relief” by addressing “a serious flaw” in banking regulations that focused merely on “financial stability and consumer protection” and “largely ignored the [regulatory] costs.” Ip noted that consumer advocate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi took issue with letting banks have more leeway, but he dismissed their concerns, stating, “The worriers should relax.” From The Wall Street Journal:

    The worriers should relax. In the 10 years since the financial crisis began, the regulatory pendulum has moved relentlessly in the direction of tougher restrictions on finance. Mr. Trump’s order reverses the direction of the pendulum but there is little sign his administration wants it back to where it was in 2007.

    His order does, however, address a serious flaw in the post-crisis regulatory crackdown: In pursuit of financial stability and consumer protection, it largely ignored the costs of forgone lending, economic growth and consumer choice. Mr. Trump has signaled those costs must now be taken into account. He has asked his Treasury Secretary (now awaiting confirmation) to report back in 120 days on how well current regulations promote growth, efficiency and competitiveness. Over time, that could generate a better balanced supply of credit to a wider range of companies and households without making the financial system much riskier.

    Ip continued that the consumer protections built into the Dodd-Frank Act, the CARD Act, and the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, which requires financial advisers to work in their clients’ best interests, “have carved into banks’ profitability” since their pre-recession peak. Ip concluded that the rules enacted after the 2008 financial crisis do little to prevent another financial crisis, except for rules that increased the amount of hard money a bank must hold in reserve relative to its debt risks. But Ip claimed the Trump administration “doesn’t appear to plan on rolling [capital requirements] back much.”

    The executive orders that Ip praised directed departments to account for the regulatory costs of consumer protections when deciding which rules to roll back, which the Journal’s own reporting has concluded could create a $100 billion windfall for investors by loosening capital requirements at banks. These capital requirements are the same ones that Ip argued stand “the best chance of preventing another financial crisis.”

    Ip argued that “a serious flaw” in the current slate of consumer protections is that they focus on protecting consumers and “in theory” could “reduce growth,” but in reality the three biggest banks reported strong fourth quarter earnings last year and CNBC reported that banks enjoyed record profits in the second quarter of 2016. These reports coincide with a February 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the regulatory structure created after Dodd-Frank “has contributed to the overall growth and stability in the U.S. economy.”

    Ip’s emphasis on bank profits fails to recognize that Dodd-Frank, the CARD Act, and the fiduciary rule are designed to minimize exploitation, not maximize profit. Dodd-Frank was enacted to protect the economy by empowering the Federal Reserve System with broader banking oversight and created new protections for consumers through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CARD Act created even more protections for consumers, including limiting interest rate hikes on credit cards. The fiduciary rule ensures consumers receive financial advice catered to their best interests rather than their adviser’s bottom line, something that Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) characterized as a“no-brainer” given that the investment advice industry “makes billions of dollars from conflicted advice.”

    If Ip really wants the Trump administration to focus on increasing bank profits, heaping praise on executive orders that will weaken the economy and undermine an already profitable financial industry is a bizarre place to start. Jeff Spross of The Week put it bluntly in a February 6 column blasting Trump’s regulatory rollback: “Who on Earth would view deregulating the financial industry as a good idea?” Writing for The Guardian, Nils Pratley didn’t mince words either, characterizing the concept that banks are over-regulated as a “half-baked idea” and “nonsense” while adding that there is little evidence of consumer protections standing in the way of the industry’s growth.

    Ip’s decision to defend Trump’s attempts to deregulate the financial sector may lend credence to reports that the Journal is intentionally taking a softer tone with the president and pressuring reporters “to reflect pro-Trump viewpoints” in articles. The Journal’s behavior is not surprising, as its right-wing editorial board has led a years-long campaign against consumer protections.

  • The Daily Caller Used The White House Press Briefing To Advocate Gutting The CFPB

    Right-Wing Media Complain About CFPB Salaries As An Excuse To Destroy Financial Oversight

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON & ALEX MORASH

    Daily Caller reporter Kaitlan Collins recycled tired right-wing media complaints about employee salaries at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as an excuse to float the prospect of gutting the agency during today’s White House press briefing, neglecting to mention that the financial industry watchdog is not funded by taxpayers. The CFPB has long been a target of right-wing media misinformation campaigns aimed at undermining support for objective oversight of Republican-aligned special interests on Wall Street.

    During the February 9 press briefing, Collins asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer if President Donald Trump has “plans to revamp” the CFPB in light of recent reports that some of its employees stand to earn higher salaries in 2017 than Vice President Mike Pence. Collins further begged the question of whether or not Trump believes “he should be able to fire the head of the agency,” Richard Cordray, who has been under fire from congressional Republicans since assuming his position as director of the CFPB in January 2012. Spicer responded by saying “one of the things that you are going to continue to see from this president is a respect for taxpayers’ dollars, the money they spend and how they’re spent” and that federal employees should be paid “a fair wage for their service to this country.” From MSNBC Live:

    As part of a broader hit piece on the CFPB, The Daily Caller reported on February 7 that the agency pays 39 employees more than $230,000 -- the current annual salary for the sitting vice president of the United States. Other right-wing outlets -- RedState and the Washington Free Beacon -- joined in condemning the CFPB both for its higher salaries and for its supposed operation outside “normal government oversight,” obscuring the purpose behind the agency’s structure.

    While Spicer’s expressed concern for demonstrating “respect for taxpayers’ dollars” is welcome, the CFPB is not funded by tax dollars. The CFPB is funded entirely by the Federal Reserve System, which is also not taxpayer funded and actually serves as a source of additional revenue for the Treasury (emphasis added):

    The Federal Reserve does not receive funding through the congressional budgetary process. The Fed's income comes primarily from the interest on government securities that it has acquired through open market operations. Other sources of income are the interest on foreign currency investments held by the Federal Reserve System; fees received for services provided to depository institutions, such as check clearing, funds transfers, and automated clearinghouse operations; and interest on loans to depository institutions. After paying its expenses, the Federal Reserve turns the rest of its earnings over to the U.S. Treasury.

    Right-wing media have been complaining about CFPB salaries for years, but those complaints will carry extra weight if congressional Republicans find a willing accomplice in the White House to sign legislation cutting CFPB pay. A December 22 report from Bloomberg Law outlined how Republican-backed legislation would cut pay to CFPB employees by “as much as 25 percent” while pointing to October 2013 congressional testimony from AFL-CIO lawyer Daniel Silvers explaining the importance of the CFPB payscale:

    “Congressman, all the bank regulators have this ability,” Silvers said. “It’s impossible to be an effective banking regulator without the ability to hire competitively in the banking sector.” Congress has exempted the CFPB, the Fed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and some other financial regulators from the GS system, resulting in generally higher scales at those agencies.

    Today’s anti-CFPB talking points follow a Wall Street Journal editorial calling for CFPB head Cordray’s termination based on bogus charges of cost overruns in building renovations and discrimination on the part of his management team. The symbiotic, years-long campaign by right-wing media and their GOP allies to gut the consumer watchdog agency has been well-documented, and they make perfect sense given that the agency remains as “one of the few adversaries of Wall Street” left in government after Trump’s election victory.

  • FCC Decision To Reduce Internet Subsidy For Low-Income Americans Comes Straight From Fox News

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON

    Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has chosen to reduce participation in an Obama-era expansion of a Reagan-era telecommunications subsidy for low-income Americans. The program, known as “Lifeline,” had become a regular target of right-wing media attacks and conspiracy theories, which labeled it as “Obamaphones” that were distributed in low-income communities to buy votes.

    According to a February 3 report from The Washington Post, Pai announced that the commission was reversing a decision made last year to allow additional companies to apply a federal subsidy of $9.25 per month for qualifying households seeking assistance in acquiring internet access. From the Post:

    Regulators are telling nine companies they won't be allowed to participate in a federal program meant to help them provide affordable Internet access to low-income consumers — weeks after those companies had been given the green light.

    The move, announced Friday by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, reverses a decision by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler, and undercuts the companies' ability to provide low-cost Internet access to poorer Americans. In a statement, Pai called the initial decisions a form of “midnight regulation.”

    [...]

    The program, known as Lifeline, provides registered households with a $9.25-a-month credit, which can then be used to buy home Internet service. As many as 13 million Americans may be eligible for Lifeline but do not have broadband service at home, the FCC has found.

    [...]

    Until last year, Lifeline recipients could only apply their federal benefit toward landline and mobile voice service. Significant changes to the program under Wheeler let beneficiaries, for the first time, use their credits to purchase broadband. The expansion was opposed by Pai and other Republican officials, who argued that the measure did not do enough to rein in potential costs or to control waste, fraud and abuse. (Democrats claimed that recent reforms to the program had helped cut down on the latter.)

    The FCC initially announced the expansion of the subsidy program in March of last year, after then-chairman Tom Wheeler and commissioner Mignon Clyburn successfully argued that "Internet access has become a pre-requisite for full participation in our economy and our society." For their efforts to expand telecommunications access to low-income communities, the FCC was derided by Fox News, which had already spent years building a cottage industry out of bashing the subsidy program they had dishonestly dubbed “Obamaphones.”

    In 2012, Fox News began pushing the conspiracy theory that President Obama was using the Lifeline program to distribute free phones in black communities in exchange for votes based on an out-of-context video of a single overzealous Obama supporter. The so-called “Obamaphones” program became such a frequent target on Fox News that Obama brought it up in May 2015 as an example of how Fox’s fearmongering coverage of poverty stokes animosity toward the poor. During one particularly tone deaf instance, Fox contributor Charles Payne claimed the phone subsidy program was tantamount to “further enslavement of the poor” just weeks after Obama had harangued the network’s over-the-top rhetoric. When the FCC decided to further expand the program in 2016 to keep up with changing technologies -- it was established under Reagan to cover landlines, expanded by President Bush to cover cell phones, and expanded under Obama to cover internet services -- the pump had already been primed for outrage.

  • This Is What Happens When You Hire A Trump Adviser To Give Economic Analysis

    Great Job With That Stephen Moore Hire, CNN

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON

    Discredited right-wing economic pundit Stephen Moore used his first appearance on CNN since joining the network as its “senior economics analyst” to put a negative spin on the Obama-era economic recovery while squirming out of questions about lies that President Donald Trump, whom he advised during the campaign, turned into routine campaign talking points.

    During the February 3 edition of CNN’s Wolf, host Wolf Blitzer invited Moore to offer his perspective on Trump’s sudden acceptance of job creation and unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which Trump had labeled “one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics” just six months ago. Blitzer argued that the jobs data released in the morning show Trump “inheriting a strong and healthy U.S. economy,” and he aired a clip of Trump saying the January numbers were something to be “very happy about” that will likely “continue, big league.”

    Blitzer noted that the president has adopted “a very different tone” since taking office with regard to BLS data -- which he regularly blasted as “phony” during the campaign. When Blitzer pushed Moore, who served as Trump’s senior economic adviser, to answer for Trump’s sudden change of perspective, Moore pivoted to recycled complaints about the supposedly lackluster state of the economy under Obama. When Blitzer listed indicators that speak to the overall health of the economy, Moore reverted to his misleading claim that America is suffering through “the weakest recovery since the Great Depression.” Moore also set a seemingly impossible standard of success for job creation, claiming that the economy “should be getting 300-, 400-, or even 500,000 jobs a month to make up for the jobs lost from the recession.” See the full segment from Wolf here:

    In five minutes of back-and-forth, Blitzer never got Moore to own up to Trump’s sudden about-face on the monthly jobs report, but CNN viewers were exposed to the same tired criticism of President Obama that you expect to see at Fox News. This fruitless segment is sure to be a sign of things to come now that Moore -- arguably the world’s worst economist -- is serving as CNN’s “chief economics analyst.”

    CNN was as culpable as any other network in promoting Trump’s rise, but its economic team usually stood up to the Republican candidate’s falsehoods. Last year, global economic analyst Rana Foroohar left a mark on the campaign by blasting Trump’s trade policy agenda as “either a bad idea or impossible,” and ridiculing his proposal to pay off the national debt as “absolute fabulism.” Over the summer, correspondent Cristina Alesci and then-analyst Ali Velshi torched Trump’s economic fairness agenda, agreeing it seemed to be “designed for higher-income, more affluent families” rather than, as Trump had promised, middle-income Americans.

    On the jobs front, just this morning chief business correspondent Christine Romans -- who makes her living calling out Trump’s lies about the economy -- mocked Trump for accepting the jobs data, saying, “There’s no conspiracy in the numbers when they belong to him.” In fact, less than an hour before Moore took Blitzer to the spin room, CNN viewers were treated to White House correspondent Jim Acosta calling out the Trump administration for “embracing” data that it “repeatedly raised doubts about” during the campaign. Contributor Nia-Malika Henderson added that Trump should “send President Obama some flowers” to thank him for leaving behind such a healthy economy.

    Moore doesn't do anything to bolster CNN’s economic reporting; in fact, his “troubled relationship with the facts” diminishes the network. All he brings to CNN is his deft capacity to recycle right-wing media talking points that portray Obama in the harshest possible light.

  • Watch Fox & Friends Accidentally Praise Obama's Last Jobs Report

    Fox Credits Trump With January Job Creation He Inherited From President Obama

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    Fox News gushed over the jobs report for January 2017, the last of former President Barack Obama’s presidency, calling it “fantastic news” but implicitly crediting Donald Trump, who wasn’t even in office when the data were collected, for the success by calling it the “first jobs report under President Trump.”

    Fox News correspondent Heather Nauert praised the January jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on the February 3 edition of Fox & Friends, referring to it as “the first jobs report under President Trump” and labeling it as “fantastic news.” Nauert praised the report for showing that 227,000 new jobs were created in January, which she described as “a lot more than expected.” Nauert failed to mention Barack Obama, who was still the president of the United States for most of January. She concluded the segment by reiterating that this is “great news on the jobs front this morning” and suggesting Trump “would call that huge.” From Fox & Friends:

    Unfortunately for Fox’s pro-Trump narrative, the job creation in this report does not belong to his administration. University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, a former chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, pointed out that the "reference week" for the latest jobs data ran through January 12, meaning the entire report predates the Trump administration by over a week. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, who runs the paper's fact-checking research, also noted that the report "still reflects the Obama administration.” Fox also neglected to mention that the report marks 76 consecutive months of job growth -- the longest on record -- for Obama.

    The positive coverage of the report is a complete turnaround for Fox, which went to great lengths to portray strong jobs reports in a negative light during the Obama administration.

    In February 2015, the economy added 257,000 new jobs, but Fox was concerned that the unemployment rate ticked up by 0.1 points -- the same increase the rate showed in today’s report. In October of that year, Fox & Friends stumbled through a news alert in which a host claimed the economy created “only 271,000 jobs … last month” even though that report, like the data released today, also beat expectations. Last January, Fox’s spin was to claim that 292,000 new jobs was “modest by historical standards,” though it was well over this month’s 227,000. And in April 2016 the network parsed the jobs data to conclude that a report showing 215,000 new jobs was unimpressive because 47,000 of those were allegedly low-quality retail positions -- yet Nauert made no such comment about the 46,000 retail jobs included in today’s report. As Election Day drew near, Fox & Friends falsely claimed that steady jobs data for October 2016 were “underwhelming” and spun the news as a boon for Trump’s presidential candidacy.

    Media Matter’s predicted last month that Fox would retool its message on job growth to coincide with Trump’s presidency, arguing that the network’s “campaign of misinformation will likely come to a screeching halt next month.” Fox's spin on the jobs report this morning follows a consistent, deliberate, and predictable strategy of playing the role of Republican cheerleader and “propaganda machine.”

  • CNN Just Hired The Worst Economist In The World

    The Network Is Doubling Down On Its Failed Strategy Of Hosting Right-Wing Stooges In Place Of Actual Experts

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON

    CNN has reportedly poached discredited right-wing economic pundit Stephen Moore from Fox News. Moore spent years at Fox routinely spreading misinformation about the economy during the Obama administration and spent much of 2016 promoting Donald Trump's failed trickle-down policies while serving as his senior economic adviser. The decision to hire the notoriously incompetent Moore shows that the network remains invested in its failed strategy of giving airtime to partisan hacks instead of qualified experts.

    According to a January 30 report from Business Insider, Moore described leaving Fox News as “a hard decision” but said that “CNN made a really good offer.” The report noted that Moore joins “other right-leaning journalists and contributors” recently hired by the network, which has been adding new conservative voices since Election Day. The decision to add Moore to its roster reveals CNN to be on a troubling trajectory because, even among professional political hacks and conservative pundits, Moore has distinguished himself for his particularly shoddy work.

    Media Matters has extensively detailed Moore’s terrible track record as an economic analyst for over a decade. Moore has falsely claimed for years that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) forces workers into part-time jobs, he attempted to blame the housing crisis on Bill and Hillary Clinton, he promoted the lie that members of Congress and their staff are “exempt” from the ACA, he supported draconian budget cuts that hurt the economy, and he endorsed Republican attempts to block vital infrastructure spending.

    During his tenure as the “chief economist” at the Heritage Foundation, Moore once exaggerated the actual cost estimate of providing unaccompanied minors with access to American public schools by an absurd 63 percent, claiming it would cost $1 billion a year. During a July 2014 dispute with Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Moore was caught cherry-picking statistics for an op-ed published by The Kansas City Star to intentionally mislead readers about the relationship between tax cuts and job creation. (The newspaper eventually vowed to stop publishing Moore’s work, which had to be corrected by other outlets as well.)

    The examples of Moore being clueless about even the basics of economic policy are legion. For instance, there was the February 19, 2014, interview with CNN in which host Carol Costello stopped Moore’s anti-minimum wage spin dead in its tracks:

    Moore is so widely discredited that New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait once mocked him for being unable to “find a single true fact” to back up his support for repealing the ACA. Economist Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities chided Moore in a March 2015 column for his “fact-free” endorsement of anti-union “right-to-work” laws, and Krugman once speculated that Moore’s “incompetence is actually desirable” in conservative circles, because “a smart hack might turn honest.”

    It is one thing for CNN to add a conservative perspective to its news coverage, but it is another thing entirely to grant more airtime to an incompetent serial misinformer like Steve Moore. CNN viewers are already forced to endure Trump sycophant Jeffrey Lord’s ignorant and bigoted commentary. Adding Moore to the network’s roster proves once again that CNN boss Jeff Zucker learned nothing from his organization’s humiliating relationship with irreconcilable Trump apologist Corey Lewandowski. Viewers deserve to hear analysis from qualified experts, not hacks who will eschew the facts to toe a predictable party line on every issue.

  • NY Times Distorts Food Stamp Data, Saying Recipients Buy Lots Of “Unhealthful Foods”

    In Fact, Report Shows SNAP Beneficiaries Have Similar Purchasing Habits To Non-SNAP Shoppers

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON

    A recent article in The New York Times grossly misinterpreted the findings of a government review of nationwide grocery purchases by participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps.” The article incorrectly portrayed the study as showing that “a disproportionate amount of food stamp money is going toward unhealthful foods,” when in reality it showed that Americans across the board purchase similar items and that overall, everyone could be eating in healthier ways. The suggestion that SNAP recipients are somehow guilty of wasting money on frivolous food purchases is a tired right-wing media attack, and the Times’ sloppy handling of the recently released data is sure to embolden opponents of federal anti-poverty programs.

    On November 18, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the federal food security program, released a report analyzing purchases at “a leading grocery retailer” in 2011. A key finding in the data was that “food purchases, consumption patterns, and dietary outcomes among SNAP participants and higher income households are more similar than different.” Recipients of SNAP benefits spent slightly more of their grocery budget on meats and “sweetened beverages” (which include many juices and soft drinks) while non-SNAP households spent slightly more on vegetables and “high fat dairy” items. Overall, “differences in the expenditure patterns … were relatively limited” across all major grocery categories:

    According to the USDA’s summary of its findings, households that receive SNAP benefits and households that do not receive benefits have similar consumption habits, including the habit of purchasing food items like “sweetened beverages,” “soft drinks,” “salty snacks,” and other junk foods that “may not be fully consistent with” preferred dietary guidelines. Indeed, according to the full November 2016 report, the seven most common grocery purchases of SNAP and non-SNAP consumers are virtually the same, with “soft drinks” ranking first for SNAP households and second for all other customers and “bag snacks” ranking fourth for SNAP households and fifth for others:

    However, The New York Times published a headline that seems to condemn low-income Americans for buying soft drinks -- “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda” -- and its piece noted that advocates of healthy living “have called for restrictions so that food stamps cannot be used to buy junk food or sugary soft drinks.”

    Rebecca Vallas and Katherine Gallagher Robbins of the Center for American Progress slammed the article in a blog for Talk Poverty, noting that the misleading article was accompanied by an image “of a grocery cart overflowing with 2-liter bottles of soft drinks and a store aisle that is nothing but a wall of soda.”

    Talk Poverty cited several examples of research refuting the Times’ stance along with experts who “took to social media to highlight the study’s actual findings”:

    • University of Minnesota sociologist Joe Soss called the article “a political hack job on a program that helps millions of Americans” and said it  “peddled harmful myths and outright lies” in a Facebook post as well as a January 16 column for Jacobin magazine;
    • University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen analyzed the data and reported on Twitter that SNAP recipients were only slightly more likely than others to buy “sweetened beverages” but more than three times more likely to buy “baby food” because so many users have young children; and
    • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found in a June 2016 report that increasing SNAP benefits, rather than restricting their use, addresses food insecurity more broadly while also helping low-income families afford healthier (and more expensive) food items.

    Aside from missing the point of the USDA study, the Times’ report has several other issues. From the outset, the article defines SNAP as a “$74 billion food stamp program,” which makes the program sound extremely large even though it actually comprises a relatively small piece of the $3.6 trillion federal dollars spent in 2011. Reporting incomprehensible raw numbers in this way is not informative, it’s a scare tactic, and The New York Times publicly committed in October 2013 to improving its reporting on exactly this issue.

    Furthermore, by promoting the misleading premise that SNAP users are wasting tax dollars on junk food, the Times provided ammunition to political interests set on destroying the program. Right-wing media outlets have spent years demonizing SNAP and other food assistance programs based on the premise that these outlets know better than the recipients themselves what the latter should be eating. This misinformation campaign has already impacted public policy, spurring Republican lawmakers in several states and in Congress to pursue unnecessary restrictions that hurt working families.

    Finally, buried in the eighth paragraph of the Times piece, the paper quotes a USDA spokesperson who points out that the question “Are we consuming too many sweetened beverages, period?” can be applied to “all households,” not just SNAP recipients.

    Even after admitting 15 paragraphs down that “food stamp recipients and other households generally made similar purchases,” the Times pivoted back to claiming the data are “deeply troubling” to public health experts focused on the pervasiveness of a sugar-rich diet on obesity. The Times quoted obesity expert Dr. David Ludwig, who called for restrictions against using SNAP on food items “that are demonstrably going to undermine public health.” The article chose not to cite an April 2014 report by public health experts affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which found that childhood access to food stamps in their current form actually already contributes to “a significant reduction” in obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes later in life.

    If the Times wanted to tackle the problems created by the traditional American junk food diet, the paper could have followed the example set by comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver, whose excellent October 25, 2014, takedown of the sugar industry addressed the issue without targeting a single low-income family.

    **CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this post questioned the Times' inclusion of New York University professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health Marion Nestle's claim that SNAP expenditures on soft drinks are "a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry." Media Matters cited a November 2016 USDA report which indicated that the amount of SNAP funds going toward soft drink purchases equaled $357.7 million, not billions of dollars. Dr. Nestle's office reached out following the publication of this piece to contend that if the $357.7 million figure in the USDA report, which was based off figures provided by a "leading grocery retailer" in 2011, was representative of nationwide SNAP use, total expenses on soft drinks would amount to roughly $3.8 billion annually. We have removed reference to Nestle's comments in response to her office's feedback.

    With that said, Media Matters stands by its conclusion that the article poorly informed readers about the nutrition assistance program and may have misled readers into believing soft drink consumption levels among SNAP recipients are uniquely inflated by the program -- a conclusion shared by The New York Times' public editor, who argued that the article "didn't do much to advance the discussion."