New data reveal persistent, elevated poverty rates in the United States in the wake of recession. The news of economic stagnation among low-income Americans comes at a time when right-wing outlets are leveling attacks on anti-poverty programs and other policies that could raise incomes, drive economic growth, and lift millions of Americans out of poverty.
On September 17, the United States Census Bureau released updated nationwide statistics on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage for 2012. Tens of millions of Americans have seen no positive change in their circumstances from year-to-year. From the press release:
The nation's official poverty rate in 2012 was 15.0 percent, which represents 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line. This marked the second consecutive year that neither the official poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty were statistically different from the previous year's estimates. The 2012 poverty rate was 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2007, the year before the economic downturn.
According to Census Bureau data, the poverty rate, which neared all-time lows by 2000, has been on the rise for more than a decade through two distinct periods of recession and recovery.
Despite more than three years of consistent economic growth, and a recovery of the financial sector, millions of Americans remain mired in poverty, where they are often the target of right-wing assaults.
Right-wing media attacks on anti-poverty programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reached new heights in the past year. A misleading Fox News documentary portrayed the alleged abuse of the program by a single California recipient as a harbinger of fraud nationwide. Meanwhile, various Fox personalities have wildly exaggerated actual rates of fraud and abuse. At least one attack on SNAP inflated actual abuse statistics by 5,000 percent.
Although these segments frame a narrative regarding how much the government should cut from these benefit programs, they completely ignore the fact that abuse rates in SNAP and other government benefits are historically low and the economic return on investment is positive. The fact that Fox News, in particular, has begun using its own misleading coverage of benefit abuse as a lobbying and promotional tool to influence members of Congress shows unprecedented legislative influence by the right-wing media in dismantling the social safety net.
Right-wing attacks have also been leveled against proposals to increase the federal minimum wage, an action that would immediately lift millions of workers out of poverty and provide a boost to the economy.
Part of the attack against lifting the minimum wage has consistently focused on the involvement of labor unions. In his preview of the latest poverty data, economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) explained that unionization is one of the best options available to alleviate poverty. His analysis of union activity in OECD countries concludes that higher rates of union membership have a positive impact on lowering poverty rates. Labor unions, via collective bargaining, effectively raise wages and therefore the share of economic productivity distributed to workers. In cases when they are politically active, unions typically promote policies that they believe would benefit other workers, spreading the benefits of unionization to union members and non-members alike. From CEPR:
There are many other important differences that could be important in reducing poverty in these countries. However in almost every case, unions were a major force in advancing the various policies that are associated with lower poverty. It would have been difficult to envision a scenario in which these policies would have been enacted with pressure from unions.
Decreasing union membership is often celebrated by the right-wing as an ideological victory, when it in fact represents an economic policy failure. The right-wing media remain unflinching in their constant attacks on worker mobilization and labor unions.
From the September 13 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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Fox News Radio's Todd Starnes is falsely warning that the USDA is bullying Christian organizations that distribute food to low-income individuals into "choos[ing] between Jesus and cheese," ignoring that religious organizations are allowed to provide social services as long as they comply with federal law.
In a September 9 column for FoxNews.com, Starnes said that the USDA threatened to revoke federal financial assistance from the Christian Service Center, a Christian ministry in Florida, unless the group "removed portraits of Christ, the Ten Commandments, a banner that read 'Jesus is Lord' and stop[ped] giving Bibles to the needy." The sensationalist claim is already being repeated by other right-wing media outlets. From FoxNews.com:
For the past 31 years, the Christian ministry has been providing food to the hungry in Lake City, Fla. without any problems. But all that changed when they said a state government worker showed up to negotiate a new contract.
"The (person) told us there was a slight change in the contract," [Christian Service Center Executive Director Kay] Daly told me. "They said we could no longer have religious information where the USDA food is being distributed. They told us we had to take that stuff down."
Daly said it's no secret that the Christian Service Center is a Christian ministry.
"We've got pictures of Christ on more than one wall," she said. "It's very clear we are not social services. We are a Christian ministry."
[T]he Christian Service Center had a choice: choose God or the government cheese.
So in a spirit of Christian love and fellowship, Daly politely told the government what they could do with their cheese.
"We decided to eliminate the USDA food and we're going to trust God to provide," she told me. "If God can multiply fish and loaves for 10,000 people, he can certainly bring in food for our food pantry so we can continue to feed the hungry."
But Starnes is setting up a false choice and one that the ministry is not facing.
Fox News' Neil Cavuto continued to ignore the economic factors driving the growth in poverty while lamenting the increased reliance on nutrition assistance among low-income individuals.
On the September 10 edition of Fox News' Your World, Cavuto and guest Hadley Heath of the right-leaning Independent Women's Forum offered a context-free critique of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to derisively as "food stamps." During their exchange, Cavuto focused his attention on the growth of enrollment in SNAP over the past few years, stating "Americans are eating up food stamps like never before" while lamenting that nearly one in five Americans receives some degree of nutritional assistance.
Once again, the right-wing media proves that it simply has no clue how anti-poverty programs function.
At no point in the segment did Cavuto or Heath make any mention of the catastrophic recession -- from which the economy is still recovering -- that drove millions of Americans into poverty and reliance on government assistance to avoid food insecurity. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nutrition assistance has grown in recent years in response to economic hardship and a weakened recovery. From CBPP:
The recent caseload growth resulted primarily from more households qualifying because of the recession and more eligible households applying for help. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has confirmed that "the primary reason for the increase in the number of participants was the deep recession...and subsequent slow recovery; there were no significant legislative expansions of eligibility."
In addition to whitewashing the effects of the recession on SNAP enrollment, the segment included a misleading graphic, which seems to show a dramatic increase in trafficking, fraud, and abuse in SNAP:
According to the latest trafficking report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
Although trafficking does not represent a cost to the Federal Government, it is a diversion of program benefits. Benefits are intended to help low-income households access a nutritious diet, and trafficking impedes the program's mission and undermines its integrity
The gross value of SNAP trafficking has increased from $330 million in 2006-2008 to $858 million in 2009-2011, according to the USDA. However, the actual rate of trafficking has remained at near historic lows. Fraud and abuse increased from 1.0 percent overall from 2006-2008 to 1.3 percent overall from 2009-2011.
Of course, even these historically low levels of fraud and abuse are fair game in the right-wing media. On the August 19 edition of Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade dramatically exaggerated a 0.3 percentage point increase in the rate of fraud and abuse. On the August 8 edition of Your World, host Eric Bolling questioned the veracity of the most-recently available abuse rate, over-estimating it by 5,000 percent.
Nutrition assistance has long been a favorite object of attack and ridicule in the right-wing media. The continued attacks emboldened the Republican-led House of Representatives to propose cutting $40 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next 10 years, despite the harm it would cause to millions of working Americans, retirees, and children.
As food insecurity remains high, Fox News touted a plan by Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients, despite concerns that Ohio does not have enough jobs to accommodate those who would have their benefits put in jeopardy.
On the September 10 edition of Fox News' America Live, host Martha MacCallum and guest Chris Plante expressed support for Kasich's proposal to require some food stamp recipients to spend 20 hours a week working or engaging in work-related activities such as job training. MacCallum likened the program to college work-study programs, saying, "Nobody thinks that that model is an inappropriate model or an unfair or mean model, so what's wrong with it?" Plante called the program "a reasonable and honest and decent approach to getting people back to work," claiming, "we live in a world now where Democrats, the Democrat party has put themselves in the unfortunate position where they are now incentivized as a political party to keep as many people on the public dole as possible":
But according to The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio officials point out that the availability of jobs and qualifying activities is lower than the number of people who fall under the new requirement:
From the September 6 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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Fox News is peddling its recent misleading special on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, to members of Congress in an attempt to influence an upcoming vote on legislation that would cut SNAP benefits by $40 billion. This effort reveals the network's ties to the Republican Party as well as its ongoing campaign to demonize those who accept SNAP benefits.
On August 9, Fox News aired a special investigation into SNAP titled "The Great Food Stamp Binge." The special purported to demonstrate rampant fraud in the program by presenting Jason Greenslate, "a blissfully jobless California surfer" who has exploited of SNAP benefits, as the typical SNAP recipient. In reality, Greenslate bears no resemblance to the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients, many of whom are elderly, children, or rely on the program for a short time while looking for work.
According to recent reporting from Politico, Fox has found a new use for its misleading special, distributing it to members of the House in anticipation of a vote on a bill that would reduce SNAP by $40 billion:
The reductions double the level of 10-year savings previously proposed by the House Agriculture Committee on a bipartisan vote in June. The great fear in the agriculture community is that Cantor is pushing the House so far to the right on the nutrition issue that he will kill any chance of enacting farm legislation before the current law runs out Sept. 30.
Nonetheless, the Virginia Republican has a powerful cast of backers behind his vision of what's being dubbed "Welfare Reform 2.0." The Heritage Foundation, with close ties to Cantor and his top staff, has lent support in the fight. And over the August recess, Fox News aired a sympathetic report entitled "The Great Food Stamp Binge" -- videos of which are now being distributed by Fox staff to House members.
POLITICO inquiries to Fox News regarding the videos have gone unanswered since Saturday. But both Republican and Democratic offices confirmed that copies have been dropped off unsolicited in recent days, and the broadcast has already provided colorful fodder in promoting the Cantor package.
From the August 22 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:
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From the August 20 edition of Fox News' On the Record with Greta Van Susteren:
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Fox News misleadingly hyped a minor rise in food stamp fraud in an attempt to demonize the program, failing to note it has one of the lowest fraud rates of all federal programs, fraud remains at historically low levels, and the slight increase in fraud reflects an increase in overall enrollment in food supplement initiatives.
On August 15, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a new report on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, which found that benefit trafficking -- "when SNAP recipients sell their benefits for cash to food retailers, often at a discount" -- had risen slightly from 1.0 percent of total SNAP benefits in 2006-2008 to just 1.3 percent in 2009-2011.
Co-host Brian Kilmeade hyped this minor difference on the August 19 edition of Fox & Friends, focusing on the change in fraud levels while failing to report how little fraud was found in the program:
KILMEADE: 30 percent. That's how many more Americans, according to a new study, are selling food stamps for cash illegally. No, Steve, that's not legal. Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps. The program costs $80 billion a year.
In fact, according to the USDA, SNAP benefit trafficking has "remained relatively steady at approximately one cent on the dollar," and the program "continues to have one of the lowest fraud rates for Federal programs." Furthermore, rates of trafficking have declined since the 90s and the current rate of trafficking remains near historic lows:
According to the USDA, a "substantial portion" of the minor rise in benefit trafficking "is due to the growth in the program," as the total number of SNAP benefits jumped during the recent economic crisis from $36 billion in 2008 to $73 billion in 2011. The USDA also noted that the rise is partly due to the increased number of small and medium-sized businesses which are authorized to accept SNAP benefits, as small retailers accounted for 85 percent of the fraudulent redemptions identified.
The USDA has taken steps to decrease the small amount of SNAP benefit fraud, including permanently disqualifying over 1000 retailers that engaged in trafficking, suspending retailers suspected of serious fraud, more frequently reviewing high-risk retailers, and cracking down on fraud online.
Kilmeade's misleading report is just another example of how Fox News has shamelessly misrepresented the SNAP program and its beneficiaries in an effort to demonize food assistance and malign low-income Americans.
From the August 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report:
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Roughly 45 minutes into Fox News' "special" investigation into the Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or "food stamps," per the outdated parlance), host Bret Baier posed a question that gets right to the heart of what Fox News specifically, and conservatives generally, are trying to accomplish with regard to public attitudes toward social welfare programs. "Shouldn't there be at least some stigma?" Baier asked, referring to people who accept SNAP benefits. Baier's just-asking-questions lament about the lack of stigmatization was all part of Fox News' slipshod and flagrant piece of agitprop intended to shame the needy and promote public resentment of the government safety net.
Everything about Baier's special, "The Great Food Stamp Binge" -- from the title to its absurd focus on a thoroughly unlikable miscreant named Jason Greenslate who proudly abuses SNAP benefits -- was designed to provoke hostility to the idea of nutritional assistance programs. Greenslate, a California musician who refuses to work and spends his monthly SNAP benefits on sushi and lobsters, is an anomaly in a program that has proven to be both efficient and effective. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "fewer than 2 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program's eligibility requirements." The USDA estimates that just one cent of every dollar of SNAP benefits is lost to "trafficking," a type of fraud. "About three out of four SNAP households included a child, a person age 60 or older, or a disabled person," per the Congressional Budget Office.
Greenslate, who is in no way representative of the typical SNAP recipient, was the subject of two separate segments, totaling nearly nine minutes, of Fox News' hour-long special. Baier proclaimed him "the new face of food stamps."
Greenslate is "the new face of food stamps" for no other reason than Fox News wants him to be. Baier offered no data to back up this assertion, and no fact-driven justification for even including Greenslate in the report. But this freeloading oaf is an easy-to-hate villain, someone the viewer can immediately dislike and a convenient punching bag for small-government agitators. Near the program's close, Fox News reporter John Roberts, interviewing Greenslate, attempted to shame him -- and every other recipient of SNAP benefits. "It used to be that, you know, that if somebody was on food stamps it's like 'hey, they're on food stamps, you know... loser,'" said Roberts.
Fox News promised to continue highlighting segments from its report, "The Great Food Stamp Binge," an hour-long attempt to characterize SNAP recipients as freeloaders. One participant in the report, an advocate against hunger, described it a "tour de force of half-truths, distortions, and outright lies."
On the August 12 edition of Special Report, guest host Shannon Bream played an excerpt of Bret Baier's report on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (commonly referred to as food stamps) and promised to continue highlighting parts of the report throughout the week:
Later that evening, Fox's Bill O'Reilly also pushed the report, contending that SNAP shows that the Obama administration "encourag[es] parasites to come out and take as much as they can with no remorse."
Media Matters has noted that the report is a wild misrepresentation of SNAP recipients. One advocate featured in the report, Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, called it a "tour de force of half-truths, distortions, and outright lies" that "could win the Pulitzer Prize ... for fiction." From Berg's statement:
Once again, Fox News is blaming the victim, claiming that low-income families - who are victims of the continued collapse in the U.S economy and the failure of the U.S. political system to fix it - are somehow to blame because they need temporary help from SNAP benefits to feed their families. That's like blaming those who drowned on the Titanic for the ship's faulty design and reckless piloting. Ignoring the fact that most SNAP participants are working, or are senior citizens, children, people with disabilities, and veterans, the show repeatedly gives the false impression that the program encourages laziness instead of work. Even though there are 47 million Americans now receiving SNAP benefits, the show focuses on one individual - yes, one - who abuses the system.
[T]he Fox show is a tour de force of half-truths, distortions, and outright lies. In fact, were it not for the half-truths, the report would have no truths at all.
This post has been updated.
From the August 12 edition of Courtside Entertainment Group's The Laura Ingraham Show:
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In an attempt to make a surfing freeloader the face of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, a Fox News special profiled Jason Greenslate, "a blissfully jobless California surfer" who has taken advantage of SNAP benefits. In reality, Greenslate bears no resemblance to the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients, many of whom are elderly, children, or rely on the program for a short time while looking for work.
Prior to its August 9 airing, Fox News hyped the special, "The Great Food Stamp Binge," on Fox News Insider, FoxNews.com, and several of its daytime shows. Each preview focused on Jason Greenslate, a freeloading surfer who Fox correspondent John Roberts interviewed in Southern California. FoxNews.com described Greenslate at length in an article that teased the "new documentary":
The Fox News Reporting documentary profiles, among others, a California surfer and aspiring musician named Jason Greenslate. Greenslate shows how he supports his beach-bum lifestyle with food stamps, while dismissing the idea of holding down a regular, steady job.
"It's not that I don't want a job, I don't want a boss. I don't want someone telling me what to do. I'm gonna live my own life," Greenslate tells Fox News' John Roberts. "This is the way I want to live. And I don't really see anything changing. I got the card. It's $200. That's it."
As promised, "The Great Food Stamp Binge" labeled Greenslate "the new face of food stamps," devoting two full segments to his lifestyle in a shameless attempt to characterize SNAP recipients as freeloaders.