7News report on Food Stamp Challenge omitted that source writes for free-market think tank; overstated average food stamp benefit

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A KMGH 7News segment that aired October 14 reported that a Westminster couple tried the weeklong Food Stamp Challenge for an entire month "to make a point about government handouts." However, 7News did not identify one member of the couple, Ari Armstrong -- who said "we should look at alternatives to food stamps " -- as a contributing author to the free-market think tank the Independence Institute or as the founder of a website that "provides original news and views from a perspective of free markets and individual rights." 7News also appeared to significantly overstate the average monthly food stamp benefit a family of two receives.

In an October 14 report about "one couple in Westminster" participating in a Food Stamp Challenge "to make a point about government handouts," KMGH 7News at 10 p.m. did not mention that one of the participants, Ari Armstrong, is a contributing author to the free-market think tank the Independence Institute and founder of a website that "provides original news and views from a perspective of free markets and individual rights." Additionally, 7News failed to note that Armstrong previously had written two guest op-eds for the Rocky Mountain News in which he described his Food Stamp Challenge and argued that "[w]elfare -- the forcible transfer of wealth -- should be phased out and replaced with voluntary charity such as food banks, even as political controls that hamper economic opportunities are repealed."

7News also claimed an eligible family of two "typically receives" $284 worth of food stamps per month, and that a $180 monthly food expense goal set by Armstrong and his wife was "much less than a traditional food stamp allowance for a two-person family." However, figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show the average monthly benefit per person in the 2006 food stamp program was $94.31, based on data as of September 26, 2007, or $188.62 monthly for a family of two.

As The Washington Post reported on May 16, "Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), co-chairmen of the House Hunger Caucus, called on lawmakers in Congress to take the 'Food Stamp Challenge' to raise awareness of hunger and what they say are inadequate benefits for food stamp recipients." As part of the challenge, lawmakers "pledged to live for one week on $21 worth of food, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance. That's $3 a day or $1 a meal," according to the article.

The Denver Post reported on June 8 that "Colorado officials and others around the country have been taking part in the Food Stamp Challenge. Their efforts are drawing attention to the program as it goes before Congress for reauthorization in the 2007 Farm Bill." The article also noted, "The measure before Congress would add $4 billion to the $33 billion food- stamp budget, an increase that would give a family of four an additional $48 a month for food." The Farm Bill referenced by The Denver Post, H.R. 2419, passed out of the House in July and is awaiting Senate approval.

During the 7News broadcast, anchor Anne Trujillo reported, "Ari Armstrong and his wife, Jennifer, are cooking at home to prove they can eat with just $180 month, much less than a traditional food stamp allowance for a two-person family." The report then aired footage of Armstrong saying, "I do think that we should look at alternatives to food stamps, which basically is forcing some people to pay for the food of others. I like the idea of voluntary charities a lot more." Later in the report, Armstrong claimed that he and his wife "ended up spending for the two of us $159.04, which works out to $2.57 per person per day," which, Trujillo stated, is "[d]ramatically less than the $284 a family of two typically receives." Trujillo did not cite a source for the $284 figure, although on his website, Colorado Freedom Report, Armstrong states that a two-person household can receive "as much as $284" a month in food stamp benefits, according to the USDA.

While 7News identified Armstrong in an on-screen graphic as the editor of "Free Colorado.com," the report failed to note that his website "provides original news and views from a perspective of free markets and individual rights." 7News also failed to note Armstrong's authorship of several editorials for the Independence Institute, including "Message to Congress and General Assembly: Government Meddling Undermines Individual Health Insurance" and "The Left's Superiority Complex."

Armstrong's comments during the 7News report echoed a June 22 Rocky Mountain News guest op-ed (accessed through the Nexis database) he wrote titled: "Food Stamp Challenge will be a snap: What is the appropriate role of government-run welfare?" In the editorial, Armstrong stated:

To read various newspaper accounts of the Food Stamp Challenge, one would think that journalists have never looked around a grocery store or given much thought to nutrition on a budget.

The challenge asked politicians and public figures to eat on less than $3.57 per person per day in order to "prove" that tax spending on food stamps should be increased.

[...]

Recently I've purchased a gallon of organic milk for $1, potatoes for 20 cents per pound, bananas for 25 cents per pound, and red-leaf lettuce for under $1 per pound. A 10-pound bag of dry pinto beens costs less than $7, I noticed.

My wife and I decided that we could each easily eat on less than $3 per day. We're so confident about this that we've decided to do it for a full six months, not the mere week of the original challenge.

[...]

There is, of course, a broader issue here. What is the appropriate role of government-run welfare, if any? One side holds that income should be more evenly distributed by political force. I believe that individuals have a moral right to control their own income and associate voluntarily with others. Thus, I would like to see welfare phased out.

What is the appropriate way to help the poor, then? A free economy is a prosperous economy. Unfortunately, various economic controls, such as labor restrictions and protective tariffs, put some low-skilled workers out of a job and artificially increase the cost of some goods. The poor pay a greater portion of their income to the Social Security tax than the rich do. True, most poor people soon gain the experience and knowledge to earn more money. Yet remaining legal barriers to their advancement should be removed.

Beyond that, voluntary charity is the best way to help those truly in need through no fault of their own. Voluntary charity respects the rights of donors, who are able to decide which charities are worthy of support. A dollar given in voluntary charity is more likely to be spent prudently than is a dollar taken by force for a tax program. Charities that must earn your donations have a better incentive to spend resources wisely.

Armstrong made a similar argument against welfare and food stamps in a September 14 News "Speakout" column (accessed through Nexis) titled: "$2.57 a day buys food, perspective: 'Food Stamp Challenge' a catalyst for personal change":

A two-person household can receive as much as $284 per month in food stamps, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Nevertheless, my wife and I spent the month of August eating for $159.04, or $2.57 per person per day. We wanted to best the "Food Stamp Challenge" of three months ago, in which public figures spent a week on the "average" food-stamp budget of $3.57 per day -- less than the resources recipients have available for food -- and promoted more tax spending on the program (" 'I couldn't afford an onion'/Food stamp test leaves city exec hungry and tired," June 11).

We ate a fairly regular diet, preparing dishes such as soup, baked chicken, burritos, meatloaf, salads, cookies and flan (my specialty).

We didn't accept free food, buy food at Costco, or even eat our home-grown tomatoes.

We didn't go out to eat.

Our purchases included fresh and frozen vegetables, brown rice, organic milk, real butter and flax. And the total bill included $6.64 for taxes.

I said we could eat for less than $3 per person per day. I was right.

[...]

I was reminded at a very personal level of the importance of a free-market system of capitalism, in which the rights of the individual to control his own life, resources and property -- as consistent with the equal rights of others -- are fully protected by law. It is because of that system of liberty -- and to the extent that we maintain it -- that we prosper and thrive. We can rejoice that most of us have to worry about eating too much food, not too little, and that we have ample resources to save for emergencies.

Welfare -- the forcible transfer of wealth -- should be phased out and replaced with voluntary charity such as food banks, even as political controls that hamper economic opportunities are repealed. Voluntary charity is consistent with individual rights, and it is more likely to promote responsible giving, administration and consumption of resources for the poor. The goal should be to help people become independent rather than dependent on politicians and bureaucrats.

From the October 14 broadcast of KMGH's 7News at 10 p.m.:

THERESA MARCHETTA (anchor): Could you live on food stamps for about $3.50 a day? Well, there are more than 250,000 people on food stamps who do just that. In fact, one couple in Westminster, who has never had to use food stamps in the past, put themselves to the test to make a point about government handouts. But not everyone agrees with the results. In tonight's "10:15 Difference," 7News anchor Anne Trujillo takes on the Food Stamp Challenge.

[begin video clip]

ARMSTRONG: We splurged and got some chicken breasts.

TRUJILLO: Ari Armstrong and his wife, Jennifer, are cooking at home to prove they can eat with just $180 month, much less than a traditional food stamp allowance for a two-person family. The reason?

ARMSTRONG: I do think that we should look at alternatives to food stamps, which basically is forcing some people to pay for the food of others. I like the idea of voluntary charities a lot more. Like food banks.

TRUJILLO: Charities can be a help, but Patricia Gutierrez knows just how hard it is to ask for a handout.

GUTIERREZ: You feel like something is missing when you have to go down there. You know, you feel like you failed.

TRUJILLO: She receives food stamps to care for her daughter and granddaughter.

GUTIERREZ: It's not like it's easy as people think it is to just go down and get it and stay on it forever. You have a time limit.

TRUJILLO: For the Armstrongs, it was a one-month challenge to prove that eating on a small amount of money can be done.

ARMSTRONG: This diet really isn't that different from our normal diet. Which is why we knew we could do it.

TRUJILLO: But, they had to plan around sales and missed out on some foods.

JENNIFER ARMSTRONG: Probably more fresh fruits and vegetables, just because -- you know, when budget's not a concern, you just kind of buy what you're hungry for.

ARMSTRONG: Well, we looked for the sales. We -- you know, we just -- we bought things that were on sale. We only purchased items that we could buy in an economical way. You know, we're not spending $20 for salmon.

TRUJILLO: And there were some nutritional challenges.

ARMSTRONG: We did have some trouble on the first few days getting our balance of foods right.

TRUJILLO: Still, at the end of the month, they did it.

ARMSTRONG: So we actually ended up spending for the two of us $159.04, which works out to $2.57 per person per day.

TRUJILLO: Dramatically less than the $284 a family of two typically receives. While the Armstrongs say it proves their theory it can be done, others who are struggling day in and day out to make it disagree.

GUTIERREZ: It's not enough. You know, $356 cash for two kids, that's really nothing, and the food stamps? Thank God for coupons. Because if not, or the buy one get one free, the 10 for 10. I mean, because it just doesn't work.

[end video clip]

MARCHETTA: Now, according to the Food Stamp Challenge, food stamps are not keeping pace with the inflationary costs of food. This month the Senate is expected to debate a bill that would change the formula so that food stamps would keep up with the cost of living. The Armstrongs hope their test proves to lawmakers the food stamp program is not the way to go.

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