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.
Forbes columnist John Tamny's declaration on The Daily Show that food stamps are "cruel" and would be replaced by private charity if people were "literally starving" with "distended bellies" is in keeping with his past remarks on the program -- In his regular role as a Fox panelist, Tamny has lamented that food stamp recipients are not publicly shamed and embarrassed for receiving the benefits.
On the December 17 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Forbes columnist Tamny spoke to correspondent Jessica Williams about the $5 billion recently cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps). Tamny told Williams, "If I were in control, I would abolish SNAP all together. I think food stamps are cruel." He added, "I don't think anyone is happy if they're reliant on someone else, if they're taking a handout."
Tamny argued that if people were "literally starving," a "massive outpouring of charity" would "make up for that fact":
WILLIAMS: What does literally starving look like?
TAMNY: This is going to come off the wrong way, but I guess it's where people have literally distended bellies where they're getting almost nothing. We don't hear about the poor in this country starving on the streets.
He went on to deny that the food stamp program keeps people from starving.
Rush Limbaugh attacked a federal program that keeps children from going hungry, arguing that food stamps are instead the cause of childhood obesity -- but studies find no link between the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP -- also called food stamps) and obesity in children.
On the December 3 edition of his radio show, Limbaugh agreed that a Washington Times op-ed by James Bovard proved the theory that "more food stamps means fatter kids." Limbaugh asserted that minority children were casualties of "Obama's obesity epidemic" because the "Democrat party has made everybody they can think they are victims" by giving them food stamps.
But Limbaugh's claims are false. Bovard's op-ed never asserted that most childhood obesity occurs among minorities and Bovard mislead his readers about obesity studies to craft a false narrative that food stamp use is linked to childhood obesity. Bovard referenced a study by Baruch college professor Diane Gibson titled "Food Stamp Program Participation is Positively Related to Obesity in Low Income Women" which "estimated that participation in the food-stamp program for five years boosted the odds of young girls being overweight by 43 percent." But Gibson pointed out that her research "did not control for food insecurity, and this omission potentially complicates the interpretation of the FSP [Food Stamp Program] participation variables."
Fox News claimed the Obamacare rollout has "clearly" been worse for the American people than the government shutdown, because the shutdown's "biggest inconvenience" was a few closed national parks and memorials -- ignoring the shutdown's cuts to domestic violence centers, women and children's food and health care, stalled scientific research, and severe economic losses.
On the November 11 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy and Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano held a "pop quiz" to determine "[w]hich was more harmful to your personal freedoms," Obamacare or the government shutdown? Both decided that there was no contest: Doocy proclaimed that Obamacare was "clearly" worse than the "slimdown," and Napolitano agreed that it was "[n]ot even a close call." As evidence, Napolitano pointed out that "the biggest inconvenience" of the government shutdown was "a couple hundred well-intended people trying to get into national parks and monuments and the government had closed them." In contrast, he claimed that Obamacare hurts people by forcing them to buy expensive "high end, one-size-fits-all" health insurance policies.
Fox's faulty comparison ignored the significant impacts of the government shutdown, which harmed the economy and slashed funding to necessary programs for low-income Americans.
Because of the shutdown, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program that helps provide health care for at-risk babies and "helps new mothers feed themselves and their babies properly," saw its funding slashed, and states that were unable to lend the program local funds were forced to stop accepting enrollees. The shutdown also cut federal funding to at least 2,000 shelters for victims of domestic abuse, workplace safety inspections were halted, federal workers stopped inspecting toxic waste sites, and the CDC stopped monitoring the spread of the flu. National Geographic further reported that the shutdown caused long-term setbacks in scientific research, and The Washington Post detailed how the shutdown's fallout cost low-income workers their economic stability.
The shutdown also did lasting damage to the U.S. economy. Moody's Analytics estimated that the shutdown "cut real GDP by $20 billion, shaving half a percentage point off growth in the fourth quarter," according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. CRS also noted that "JP Morgan Chase's chief economist was quoted as estimating that the shutdown reduced fourth quarter growth by 0.5 percentage points, with half the reduction attributable to lower government spending and half to 'spillover effects and lost activity' in the rest of the economy." The shutdown also eroded consumer confidence and may have derailed our gradual economic recovery, and economists argue that the shutdown will have lingering effects on the labor market and overall economy for several months.
Napolitano's argument that "5,500,000 innocent Americans were told they don't - they won't have health insurance on January 1st" is also inaccurate. Fox has repeatedly worked to hide the fact that rather than losing coverage outright, most of these consumers are simply being offered new, often better, options because policies will be required to include basic standards of care. Moreover, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, though rocky, has successfully allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to sign up for Medicaid.
The four major network Sunday news programs failed to report on the newly enacted decrease in food stamp benefits, which affects more than 47 million Americans.
On November 1, USDA reported that "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients will see their monthly benefits decrease" after the expiration of benefit increases enacted in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA). But Fox News Sunday, NBC's Meet The Press, ABC's This Week, and CBS' Face the Nation all failed to bring up the issue on the November 3 editions of their respective shows.
Writing at Salon, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explained: "As of November 1 more than 47 million Americans have lost some or all of their food stamp benefits." He added that "Half of all children get food stamps at some point during their childhood." CBS News reported that the SNAP benefit cuts would shrink benefits for a family of four by as much as "$432 over the course of a year." The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) highlighted how SNAP benefit cuts would affect hundreds of thousands of veterans:
Many veterans returning from service face challenges in finding work. While the overall unemployment rate for veterans is lower than the national average, the unemployment rate for recent veterans (serving in September 2001 to the present) remains high, at 10.1 percent in September 2013. About one-quarter of recent veterans reported service-connected disabilities in 2011, which can impact their ability to provide for their families: households with a veteran with a disability that prevents them from working are about twice as likely to lack access to adequate food than households without a disabled member.
Veterans who participate in SNAP tend to be young, but their ages range widely: 57 percent of the veterans in our analysis are under age 30, while 9 percent are aged 60 or older. They served during many conflicts, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, and in some cases, Korea and World War II, as well as in peacetime.
The media continues to ignore food stamp cuts that affect millions of Americans and negatively impact the economy.
From the October 31 edition of MSNBC's PoliticsNation:
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From the October 30 edition of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes:
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Cable and broadcast nightly news programs have remained completely silent on pending automatic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- formerly known as food stamps -- which will have negative impacts on the economy and low-income groups.
Fox Business' Charles Payne questioned the need for fast food workers to rely on federal assistance, absurdly citing aggregate earnings of workers and ignoring the fact that many in the industry earn below subsistent wages.
On the October 25 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co., guest host Charles Payne and Fox contributor Elizabeth MacDonald discussed a recently released audio recording from the advocacy group LowPayIsNotOK.org. In the recording, a long-time McDonald's employee is directed by a "McResources" representative to seek out federal benefit programs to augment her inadequate take-home income. MacDonald cited a statement from McDonald's disavowing the call before Payne launched into a slander-filled tirade against a stereotyped generalization of low-wage, fast food employees:
PAYNE: There is a lot of unfortunate parts of the story. If you want to create a society where these jobs -- $8 jobs go for $15. Then what you're saying to people is like, okay, "don't improve your life. Don't finish high school. Don't go to college. Don't, you know what, have three or four kids out of wedlock. Don't put yourself in a predicament where this is your only option. In fact, keep doing what you're doing, smoke weed all day if you want. Doesn't matter. You'll get rewarded because in this society Mickey D's has got the money. They owe it to you." And I think that's a work mentality.
Payne concluded his screed by referencing the aggregate wages of fast food employees nationwide to support his claim that they don't actually need taxpayer-subsidized assistance programs:
PAYNE: By the way, people should know. They say it's between $3 to $7 billion that fast food workers get in care from the government. In the same time though, these fast food workers make between $41 and $46 billion. So who is subsidizing who?
While Payne is quick to dismiss that workers need these programs, absurdly citing aggregate earnings of fast food workers, facts show that they are indeed essential.
According to a recently released study by economists at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign titled "Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast Food Industry," "annual earnings in the fast food industry are well below the income need for self-sufficiency," and after accounting for limited work hours, the median annual earnings of a fast food worker stands at just $11,056 -- below the federal poverty threshold for an individual. Couple those low earnings with the fact that workers in the industry are twice as likely to be in households with total income below the poverty line, and it becomes clear that reliance on federal programs is necessary.
Indeed, fast food workers are overwhelmingly more reliant on public assistance programs than other segments of the workforce.
Fox News promoted a false attack on a federal program that expands access to free school meals by dismissing child hunger and claiming that the program will harm low-income families. But studies have shown the school meals program helps alleviate the high levels of hunger that exist among low-income children, improves their access to key nutrients, and increases academic performance.
From the October 18 edition of Fox News' The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson:
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Fox News has downright ignored the billions lost in productivity as a result of the government shutdown, which stands in stark contrast to the network's years-long attack on minimal waste and abuse in food assistance programs.
On October 16, the financial ratings agency Standard & Poor's released its estimate of the economic cost of the 16-day long shutdown of the federal government, concluding that it cost the American economy $24 billion in lost productivity. The agency also cut its forecast for economic growth in the upcoming fiscal quarter by at least 0.6 percentage points.
Since the shutdown was lifted on October 16, Fox News personalities have expended considerable effort downplaying the effect the shutdown had on the economy.
On October 16, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs cited a slight uptick on the Dow Jones industrial average throughout the shutdown as evidence that the nationwide closure of federal lands and agencies had a negligible economic effect. Fox Business' Melissa Francis made a similar argument, claiming that the shutdown had shown Americans they could live with "a lot smaller government." On the October 17 edition of The Five, Fox News host Eric Bolling questioned the validity of S&P, and other agencies, that report economic losses from the shutdown, baselessly suggesting that their reports are influenced by political factors.
Fox's continued denial of the ruinous economic effect of the government shutdown reveals the network's hypocritical and overzealous reporting on waste and abuse in federal anti-poverty programs.
In August, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), updated its figures for "trafficking," or when SNAP recipients sell their benefits for cash, in the program. Its data reveal a slight increase in trafficking rates from 1.0 percent in 2006-2008 to 1.3 percent in 2009-2011. The total value of trafficked benefits during the last three year period is estimated to be $858 million annually.
Rather than acknowledging that SNAP trafficking rates were still near historic lows, Fox misleadingly highlighted what it called a "30 percent" increase in abuse. Days previously, Fox dedicated another segment to attacking food assistance that included host Eric Bolling overestimating SNAP fraud and abuse rates by 5,000 percent.
The amount of yearly trafficking abuse in SNAP amounts to less than four percent of the wasted economic output caused by the government shutdown. In other words, the cost of the 16-day shutdown is nearly 28 times larger than a full year of food assistance abuse. While Fox has repeatedly claimed that waste in SNAP cannot be tolerated, the network has yet to acknowledge that waste from the shutdown even exists.
Of course, this should come as no surprise given the network's efforts to encourage the shutdown and resulting economic fallout. Fox News played a prominent role in encouraging and facilitating a partial government shutdown that cost the economy billions of dollars in lost productivity while producing zero policy gains for the Republican Party or its right-wing media champions. Fox has tried repeatedly to find scapegoats in the administration to shift blame away from allies in the House GOP caucus.
According to the USDA, "fluctuations in the number of SNAP participants in the last 16 years have broadly tracked major economic indicators." With the Republican-led shutdown effectively draining tens of billions of dollars out of the economy, SNAP registries are likely to increase in the near-term as the shutdown and lingering fiscal austerity drag down recovery.
If that happens, recipients of federal anti-poverty assistance can expect a resurgence of Fox attacks.
From the October 4 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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Radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program is "not doing anybody any good," despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
On the October 4 edition of his radio show, Limbaugh smeared the WIC program as useless as the government shutdown halted funding toward WIC benefits. Limbaugh alleged that the program is "not doing anybody any good" because "by definition, we talking about single mothers here" who "don't know what to do if a government program runs dry." Limbaugh added, "I don't think this is helping anybody. ... This is no way to live, and it isn't necessary in this country."
According to Forbes, about 9 million mothers and children under the age of 5 receive nutritional benefits through the program. These benefits include "healthy food, breastfeeding support, infant formula and other necessities dispensed at clinics nationwide," Forbes reported:
The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol dismissed the devastating effects of the government shutdown claiming, "no one no one is going to starve in Arkansas," ignoring that thousands of people across the country already face the loss of vital food nutrition programs.
On the October 2 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Kristol claimed that the shutdown wasn't a "disaster," and dismissed The Huffington Post's Sam Stein's argument that the shutdown was forcing 85,000 people to lose nutritional assistance in Arkansas alone. Kristol responded that Congress should move to fund anything that was a genuine emergency, but that "a one or two week shutdown is not going to be the end of the world":
[I]t's not going to be the end of the world honestly even if you're on nutritional assistance from the federal government. The state of Arkansas can help out, localities can help out, churches can help out, I believe that no one is going to starve in Arkansas because of the shutdown.
Starvation is an extreme measure by which to judge the damage of the shutdown. Though no one may have died yet, people around the country are facing the loss of essential food services, including in Arkansas.
The Associated Press reported on September 30 that Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe felt the state was "not in a position to" fund services typically from the federal government, and that "that more than 85,000 meals for Arkansas children would not be provided and 2,000 newborn babies would not receive infant formula through the Department of Health's WIC program."