A report from Feeding America on food insecurity and food costs in the United States sheds new light on the real targets of the conservative media's crusade against food stamps.
Conservative media often rush to baselessly condemn those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, as lazy or taking advantage of the system, but the truth is that these programs help feed millions of Americans who would otherwise go hungry.
In 2013, Fox News shamelessly promoted "blissfully jobless California surfer" Jason Greenslate as the "new face of food stamps," and in April the network again attacked the program by portraying a couple living in a yacht and fraudulently collecting benefits as representative of the norm.
But these attacks are out of touch with the reality that almost 41% of recipients live in a household with earnings, and according to the USDA program fraud is below one cent on the dollar.
Feeding America's report on the county and congressional district level food insecurity and county food costs in the United States paints a startlingly different picture of the food insecure than the one the right-wing media typically pushes. Feeding America found that more than 49 million* people in the United States are food-insecure, meaning that they have "limited or uncertain access to adequate food," and that 16 million of those people are children. On average, about 71% of the food-insecure throughout the country fall below 185% of the poverty line, making them eligible to receive SNAP benefits.
In September 2013, Politico reported that Fox distributed copies of its misleading food stamp special to members of Congress during the August recess, and Fox's portrayal of Greenslate was prominently featured in GOP talking points. When Congress reconvened, conservatives in the House voted to cut $39 billion from the program. According to NBC News, food insecurity has been exacerbated by the cuts to program and have left many Americans unable to feed their families:
"The recession has subsided for most Americans but it still hasn't subsided for low-income Americans. Their situation just has not improved," he said, adding that it was "probably worse now" because a temporary funding boost in 2009 to the key government food aid program known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) was allowed to lapse by Congress last year.
"It seems like we are stacking the deck against" low-income people, said Everett, who was recently named to the congressional National Commission on Hunger. "We're missing rungs at the bottom of the (economic) ladder to be able to help people to get to the top."
*Number has been updated for accuracy
From the April 21 edition of MSNBC's PoliticsNation:
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Right-wing media hyped a misleading apples-to-oranges comparison to claim that the U.S. is at a "tipping point" in the "relationship between welfare and work."
On April 15, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed new statistics showed that "the number of people living on the government dole outnumbered full-time working women." Fox Business host Stuart Varney then claimed "welfare is replacing work" because in 2012, 46 million people collected Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) and 44 million women worked full time. Varney cited SNAP benefits as "the classic example" of an "explosion in welfare payments outgoing from the government to individuals and a decline in work," which he attributed to the Obama administration "buying votes." Meanwhile, Fox displayed this graphic:
Other right-wing media sources highlighted the same supposedly "telling" numbers. CNS News posted a graphic comparing the number of women working full time to total SNAP beneficiaries and the Drudge Report also hyped the connection:
But these numbers can't be compared, as many working women fall into both categories.
In fact, because the majority of recipients are working-class Americans with jobs, senior citizens, or children, an increase in SNAP beneficiaries is an extremely unreliable predictor of the number of full-time workers, let alone evidence of a tipping point before a decline in overall employment. A 2013 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the "overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so" (emphasis original):
The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP -- and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children -- more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.
The number of SNAP households that have earnings while participating in SNAP has been rising for more than a decade, and has more than tripled -- from about 2 million in 2000 to about 6.4 million in 2011. The increase was especially pronounced during the recent deep recession, suggesting that many people have turned to SNAP because of under-employment -- for example, when one wage-earner in a two-parent family lost a job, when a worker's hours were cut, or when a worker turned to a lower-paying job after being laid off.
A separate report from the USDA pointed out that in 2012, "75 percent of all SNAP households, containing 87 percent of all participants, included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled nonelderly person. These households received 82 percent of all SNAP benefits."
This latest attempt to cast the SNAP program as spurring unemployment ignores current economic reality. SNAP enrollment has risen as a result of the economic downturn. The Economic Policy Institute noted that "SNAP swelled because the economy entered the worst recession since the Great Depression and remains severely depressed even 18 months after the official recovery began." According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Budget Office, SNAP enrollment is projected to decline as the economy recovers:
The number of people receiving SNAP benefits will begin to slowly decline at the end of fiscal year 2014, CBO expects, reflecting an improved economic situation and a declining unemployment rate. Nevertheless, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits will remain high by historical standards, CBO estimates. That is partly because of a growing U.S. population and thus a greater number of potential SNAP participants.
Fox News may have found a new poster child for its campaign to smear recipients of government assistance like food stamps.
For more than a year, Fox has promoted "blissfully jobless California surfer" Jason Greenslate as representative of recipients of government assistance. Fox first featured Greenslate in August 2013 during a special titled "The Great Food Stamp Binge," and has returned to him repeatedly as "the new face of food stamps" in "Obama's America," "representative of literally millions of Americans" who defraud the food stamp program (officially called SNAP).
Predictably, the network jumped at the opportunity to concoct a new poster child to food stamps when news broke that an affluent Minnesota couple were wanted for defrauding public assistance benefits in Minnesota. The couple -- since arrested in Florida -- allegedly received over $160,000 in state benefits like food stamps while living on a $1.2 million yacht with millions in assets.
Fox host Neil Cavuto and network legal analyst Andrew Napolitano hyped the story on March 31 and blamed the fraud on the size of government assistance programs, saying "we shouldn't be surprised when the numbers get this big that fraud pops up." According to Napolitano, the government "willy nilly gives this money away without verifying who's receiving it," while Cavuto agreed that the government is not "following whose getting this money and whether they're all genuinely deserving of it":
Jon Stewart is calling out Fox News for creating "a narrative that ties people's poverty to their own lack of virtue," pushing back on Fox host Eric Bolling's campaign to "school" Stewart.
Bolling challenged Stewart on the March 8 edition of Fox's Cashin' In, calling The Daily Show host "a dummy" and purporting to lecture Stewart on the realities of food stamps abuse. According to Bolling, "Food stamps aren't just used for food. A lot of clowns are withdrawing cash from the EBT cards then spending in on things like booze, weed, and lap dancers." Bolling then challenged Stewart to a debate.
Stewart responded on The Daily Show Thursday night, highlighting the way that Fox uses anecdotes to paint a distorted picture of poverty in America. "What we were ridiculing was the way you exaggerate the scope of public assistance abuse through random, often unprovable anecdotes, hour-long specials, and, for some reason, this hand bursting through the heart of America," Stewart said.
Stewart noted how Fox has focused at least six separate segments to a California surfer who admits to abusing the system, part of the cable channel's campaign to create what Stewart called "the very balanced narrative that ties people's poverty to their own lack of virtue and says that programs created to serve the impoverished are, in fact, the reason they are still impoverished."
Stewart also highlighted the fact that while Bolling and other Fox hosts and commentators often criticize spending on public assistance, they have defended tax breaks for corporations that cost more than the alleged waste in public assistance programs. He added that the EBT card program in many states is operated by JPMorgan Chase.
Despite mounting evidence that low minimum wages put pressure on government finances through the need for expanded safety net programs, over the past year, evening news programs on four major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS -- have been largely silent about the public cost of low wages.
Fox News host Stuart Varney expressed outrage at state governments that are attempting to mitigate federal food stamp cuts, equating expanding eligibility for food benefits to "buying votes."
On January 29, Congress passed a version of the farm bill that cut about $800 million from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. In an effort to alleviate some of the effects of the cuts, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania modified a program that ties food stamp eligibility to home-heating assistance, known as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), to make more low-income households eligible for benefits.
On the March 11 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co- host Brian Kilmeade called the effort a "scam," and asked "if anything can be done to stop it." Varney claimed "what's really going on here is the government is buying votes. They keep [sic] churning out food stamps in return for votes. That's what's happening":
While Varney has frequently accused Democrats of buying votes through the food stamp program, this is the first time he has extended that accusation to a Republican. One of the states expanding benefits, Pennsylvania, has a Republican governor: Tom Corbett. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Corbett's move would preserve benefits for about 400,000 Pennsylvania households:
In a move that surprised even his most cynical critics, Gov. Corbett on Wednesday night forestalled an estimated $3 billion in cuts to food stamps in the state over the next 10 years.
By doing so, Corbett became the first Republican governor in the country to prevent the cuts ordered by Congress, which is looking to slash $8.6 billion over the next decade to the food-stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
The governor's decision will preserve benefits for 400,000 Pennsylvania households slated to lose a monthly average of $60 to $65 each in benefits, amounting to $300 million a year, said Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare.
"In these challenging and trying times," Gillis said, "our most vulnerable families may not have been able to absorb another hit."
In a statement to Think Progress, the National Energy Assistance Director's Association's Mark Wolfe predicted that other states would follow the three that have already expanded benefits:
More states could follow, according to Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Director's Association (NEADA). "Other states around the country will look at this and say, this makes a lot of sense. It's not a red-blue thing, it's a money thing," Wolfe told ThinkProgress. While preserving heat-and-eat benefits takes money away from LIHEAP programs, Wolfe said the directors understand that anti-poverty programs are a cooperative patchwork that serves the many of the same people.
"It's not so much a war between programs, it's more an issue of how to help families and how to use the scarce resource you have," Wolfe said. "Many of the people that run these programs work very closely with the people that run food stamps and Head Start, they know what those programs go through, they're trying to help the same families."
From the March 6 edition of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes:
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The Daily Show's Jon Stewart lambasted Fox News' ongoing campaign to shame food stamp recipients, offering the network tips to prevent future distortions about the program: "Food stamps are used for food. It's a fact you can remember with this little mnemonic I use: FOOD. It stands for, 'Food stamps can only be used for Food, Oh Oh Dummy.'"
On the March 4 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart highlighted the hypocrisy of Fox's many complaints about the food stamp program, known as SNAP -- the network has both criticized the program for allowing the purchase of unhealthy food and for allowing the purchase of food at organic markets, leaving Stewart wondering, "What the right mixture of quality and class-based shame should poor people aim for in their meal planning?"
The host called out Fox for pushing various distortions about SNAP benefits, such as the myths that they can be used to "buy things like iPads or cigarettes" or gambling at Vegas casinos. Stewart noted that the rules of the program shouldn't be difficult to remember: "Food stamps are used for food."
Indeed, Fox has engaged in a long-term campaign to demonize and shame SNAP recipients, one that carefully toes the Republican party line to help prop up harmful policy measures. Fox's attacks were even cited in a Republican policy memo as justification for slashing SNAP funding just days before House Republicans voted to cut $39 billion from the program.
And now, as the network devotes ample airtime to previewing Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) upcoming budget proposal -- which shows no signs of deviating from his past efforts to push dramatic reductions in SNAP spending - it's doubtful that Fox's food stamp attacks will subside.
Fox News is stoking fears that in "Obama's America," Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (food stamps) may be used for lap dances and liquor, a shameless misrepresentation given that under USDA regulation, benefits may not be redeemed for cash or used for non-food items.
On the February 25 edition of The Five, co-host Eric Bolling cited an interview with surfing freeloader Jason Greenslate that aired on The O'Reilly Factor the night before. Like Fox's first profile of Greenslate during the August 2013 special titled "The Great Food Stamp Binge," wherein the network attempted to make the "blissfully jobless California surfer" the face of SNAP benefits, Bolling used Greenslate to suggest that the program is rife with fraud, suggesting that food stamps may be used in "strip clubs, liquor stores, [and] pot dispensaries":
BOLLING:He's playing the system, he's stretching the rules to their limits. But what would you expect with a $105 billion dollar program that's almost tripled under Obamanomics? That's what you would expect, right there, take a look at it. But what's next? Strip clubs, liquor stores, pot dispensaries? Oh, that's already going on, folks. Welcome to Obama's America.
Bolling went on to claim that Greenslate is "representative of literally millions of Americans," before concluding: "The SNAP program, it's not called food stamps anymore, it's called SNAP. Supplemental -- what, N -- Nutrition. Right. What about liquor, lap dances, and pot is nutritional?"
Recent profiles of successful individuals illustrate how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- formerly known as "food stamps" -- helps disadvantaged people achieve success, delivering a blow to common right-wing narratives about the program cultivating laziness among recipients.
On February 19, social networking giant Facebook purchased WhatsApp -- a messaging application for smartphones -- for $19 billion. The move made WhatsApp Inc. co-founder Jan Koum a billionaire overnight, with a projected net worth of $6.8 billion.
WhatsApp co-founder, Jan Koum, 37, was born in Ukraine. He arrived in the U.S. when he was just 16 years old and his family struggled. They lived on food stamps, venture capitalist Jim Goetz revealed in a blog post.
In fact, Koum's family picked up their food stamps only a couple of blocks away from WhatsApp's offices in Mountain View, Calif., reports Wired's David Rowan.
Koum is not the only prominent person making headlines who has relied on SNAP at some point in their life. On the February 17 edition of MSNBC's NOW, host Alex Wagner profiled Olympic speed skater Emily Scott. In June 2013, Scott, who had been working at a medical supply company while training 8 hours per day in preparation for Sochi, was forced to apply for food stamps when her monthly Olympic stipend was cut to just $600. As Wagner noted, Scott is the second ranked American speed skater and will compete in the speed skating quarterfinals on February 21.
The success of these two individuals -- one now a billionaire and the other competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- helps dispel common myths about food stamp recipients.
In recent years, right-wing media have rushed to demonize food stamp recipients, often portraying them as lazy, dependent, or unwilling to work. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has even gone so far as to suggest that children facing hunger should dumpster dive as an alternative to government assistance.
This distorted depiction of the program's beneficiaries culminated in a wildly misleading Fox News report on Jason Greenslate, "a California surfer and aspiring musician." In the report, Fox described Greenslate as "the new face of food stamps," a blatant attempt to portray his lifestyle as characteristic of all food stamp recipients.
Of course, right-wing media's view of those that rely on food stamps is out of touch with reality -- most food stamp recipients stay on the program for short periods of time, 41 percent of them live in a house with earnings, and a majority of recipients are either children or elderly. Furthermore, the program keeps millions out of poverty every year.
On the heels of the Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp, the Huffington Post profiled a number of prominent people who have had to rely on food stamps, ranging from musician Bruce Springsteen to right-wing media darling Dr. Ben Carson.
Hopefully these SNAP success stories making headlines will push right-wing media to tone down the toxic and inaccurate rhetoric about the program and its recipients.
Image via Hubert Burda Media under a Creative Commons License
Not all elementary school children should get a free lunch.
That's how it appears on Fox News, anyway, which found sympathy for children whose school lunches were confiscated because parents had not added sufficient funds to their school accounts. The network wondered why the school could not give students the meals for free, a stark reversal from its attack on free lunches for low-income students as part of an "entitlement nation."
Fox's The Real Story devoted a segment on January 30 to the plight of elementary school children in Salt Lake City who saw their school lunches confiscated and thrown away, due to outstanding balances on their school lunch accounts. Host Gretchen Carlson expressed disbelief that "this really happened," wondering "what would the harm have been" in giving to the children the lunch for free "because they were going in the trash anyway."
Fox News seized on Colorado's legalization of recreational use and sale of marijuana to stoke fears -- while offering no evidence -- that low-income Americans could use food stamps to buy marijuana. In fact, food stamp recipients are barred from purchasing non-food items, cannot withdraw food stamps as cash, and fraud in the program is extremely rare.
After a Colorado law allowing the legal sale of marijuana went into effect in 2014, an urban myth spread that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) recipients could use electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to withdraw SNAP benefits as cash at ATMs located in marijuana dispensaries in order to buy marijuana. Colorado senate Republicans introduced a bill to ban the use of EBT cards at those ATMs, but the bill failed after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about restricting recipients' access to benefits in areas with few ATMs.
Despite lack of evidence and the failure of the bill, Fox News continued perpetuating the myth that SNAP recipients can use benefits to buy marijuana. The January 21 edition of Fox & Friends included on-screen text that read, "Food stamps for pot!" Another line of text claimed that the bill would "ban food stamps at pot shops."
Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade introduced the segment by asking, "Can people collecting food stamps in Colorado add marijuana to their shopping lists?" and answering,"Right now the answer is yes."
Right-wing media have spent the last few years baselessly dismissing the decades-long push to alleviate poverty as not worth the fight, despite evidence showing that government efforts to reduce poverty have been successful.
On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to enumerate proposals that would come to be known as the War on Poverty. Many of the proposals and policy prescriptions outlined in the president's speech were eventually signed into law.
Recent research from the Columbia Population Research Center at Columbia University reveals the extent to which anti-poverty programs since the 1960s have alleviated poverty for millions of Americans. The study, titled "Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure," uses a uniform measure of poverty (supplemental poverty measure or SPM) to show a dramatic drop-off in poverty rates from 1967 to 2011. From the study (emphasis added):
The OPM shows the overall poverty rates to be nearly the same in 1967 and 2011 -- at 14% and 15% respectively. But our counterfactual estimates using the anchored SPM show that without taxes and other government programs, poverty would have been roughly flat at 27-29%, while with government benefits poverty has fallen from 26% to 16% -- a 40% reduction. Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%) while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about one percentage point.
Today, despite mounting evidence of their success, the corresponding anti-poverty programs created during the War on Poverty face incessant and withering criticism from conservative politicians and their right-wing media allies. Conservative media voices regularly repeat the claim that anti-poverty programs are useless, or that after 50 years they are no longer working. In fact, as recently as January 7, Fox News host Martha MacCallum cast doubt on whether or not lowering the poverty rate over the past five decades was worth the effort, but the following graph from The New York Times' Economix blog shows just how effective these programs have been:
Source: The New York Times, Economix Blog, "The War On Poverty at 50"
In addition to questioning the general efficacy of anti-poverty relief efforts, right-wing media voices have targeted specific Johnson-era programs and initiatives like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, expanded food stamps and welfare, and an increased minimum wage in their coordinated attempt to undermine the social safety net, effectively stymying the purpose of the War on Poverty.
The past 12 months witnessed innumerable attacks on social safety net programs in the United States. These attacks on American social insurance programs were hardly limited to Social Security -- all forms of social insurance, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability, came under fire from mainstream and conservative media alike, regardless of the programs' social or economic benefits. Media Matters compiled a list of the six types of attacks on the social safety net in 2013.
For more than three years, an influential study by two Harvard economists -- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- provided a plausible foundation for attacks on spending of all types. The study fostered debt-paranoia among pundits otherwise interested in austere fiscal policies.
An April study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, however, concluded that the Reinhart-Rogoff data was error-filled in a way that selectively biased the results. A further review of the corrected data by economists at the University of Michigan found that the study should have been deemed inconclusive.
Despite losing its intellectual foundation in April, the deficit reduction talking point maintained a prominent position in fiscal policy discussion throughout the year.
Media calls for deficit reduction in the past year also regularly relied on budget reporting that lacked adequate context that federal budget deficits have declined precipitously from their 2009 peak. A Media Matters review of budget reporting done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post revealed that a sizeable majority of articles provided budget items and program spending figures out of context. Further analysis concluded this misrepresentative reporting to be little more than a scare tactic, which bolstered calls for deeper cuts to the safety net for the sake of alleged fiscal responsibility.
This lack of context in media, and the effect it had in shifting the policy debate, eventually encouraged Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to issue a statement promising to correct problematic reporting standards going forward, but other outlets have yet to follow suit.