April 28, 2007

Food Stamp Follies: Oregon Governor’s Publicity Stunt, and the Reporting on It, Are Both Wrong on the Facts

Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski got lots of attention earlier this week as he tried to show us how allegedly inadequate the Food Stamp program is (bold is mine):

Ore. gov. starts week on food stamps
By Julia Silverman, Associated Press Writer | April 25, 2007

SALEM, Ore. –If Gov. Ted Kulongoski seems a little sluggish this week, he’s got an excuse: he couldn’t afford coffee.

In fact, the Democratic governor couldn’t afford much of anything during a trip to a Salem-area grocery store on Tuesday, where he had exactly $21 to buy a week’s worth of food — the same amount that the state’s average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries.

Kulongoski is taking the weeklong challenge to raise awareness about the difficulty of feeding a family on a food stamp budget.

The governor put on quite a show trying to stay within that $21:

The governor pined wistfully for canned Progresso soups, but at $1.53 apiece, they would have blown the budget. He settled instead for three packages of Cup O’Noodles for 33 cents apiece. Kulongoski also gave up his usual Adams natural, no-stir peanut butter for a generic store brand, but drew the line at saving money by buying peanut butter and jelly in the same jar.

“I don’t much like the looks of that,” said Kulongoski, 66, staring at the concoction.

….. At the check-out counter, Kulongoski’s purchases totaled $21.97, forcing him to give back one of the Cup O’Noodles and two bananas, for a final cost of $20.97 for 19 items.

After the hourlong shopping trip, Kulongoski said he was mindful that his week on food stamps will be finite and that thousands of others aren’t so lucky.

“I don’t care what they call it, if this is what it takes to get the word out,” Kulongoski said, in response to questions about whether the food stamp challenge was no more than a publicity stunt.

But there’s a significant problem with the premise behind the governor’s awareness campaign, and with the reporting by the AP’s Julia Silverman — a problem that could have been prevented with just a few minutes of research. You see, USDA’s “food stamp budget” provides per-person per-week benefits to recipients with no other available resources that are 28%-70% higher than the $21 used in the article.

The Food Stamp Program’s “Fact Sheet on Resources, Income and Benefits” provides a table of “Maximum Monthly Allotments” (bold is mine; I converted the Monthly Allotments to weekly allotments per person by dividing by the average number of weeks in a month [4.345], and then by the number of people), and says the following about benefit levels:

FoodStampTable0407

The amount of benefits the household gets is called an allotment. The net monthly income of the household is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size to find the household’s allotment. This is because food stamp households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food.

The governor, in using $21 as his “budget,” and the AP’s Silverman, by describing that $21 as what “the state’s average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries,” are clearly misleading their public, and their readers, respectively, by ignoring the subtraction clearly described in the above paragraph.

If $21 is indeed the correct per-person per-week Food Stamp benefit in Oregon, the example that immediately follows the table at the linked Fact Sheet page makes it perfectly clear that the $21 is what remains AFTER a person or family on Food Stamps has contributed what the Program believes they can contribute towards buying food from their own resources (a fairly complex calculation that is beyond the scope of this post, except of course to note its existence). It is definitely NOT what “the state’s average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries.” The Program’s table assumes that Food Stamp recipients will spend more, and it’s reasonable to assume that many if not most recipients do indeed spend more.

Just to be sure that Oregon’s Food Stamp program doesn’t vary from the national norm, I verified that the Oregon DHS Food Stamp benefit calculator generates results consistent with USDA’s table. I used a family of 4 with very little income, and expenses exceeding that income, thereby ensuring that such a family would have no other available resources to put towards buying food according to the Program’s definitions. Bingo — the estimated benefit was the same $518 for a family of 4 listed in the table above.

Now perhaps it’s the case that USDA’s allotments are inadequate, or that the deductions for available resources are unreasonable. But the allotments are closely in line with the “Thrifty Plan” version of the agency’s most recent “Cost of Food at Home” report (link is to a page containing links to each month’s report in PDF format), and it isn’t unreasonable to expect recipients of government benefits to be thrifty. As to the available resource deductions, they were designed and mostly came about in 1996 as a part of a series of welfare reform laws passed by a Republican congress and signed by a Democratic president, and were seen as needed to curb the rampant fraud and abuse that was occurring at the time.

The bottom lines:

  • If a state governor is going to try a publicity stunt to “get the word out” about a cause he believes in, the least he can do is have his facts straight first. Governor Kulongoski could have picked up nine of those $1.53 Progressos he “pined wistfully for” without busting the program’s assumed budget for a one-person household’s food needs (yes I know he’s married with three grown children, but in his stunt he was shopping as a single person), with 93 cents to spare.
  • As to reporters — Rather than gullibly acting as the governor’s stunt director’s mouthpiece, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a few minutes verifying some basic facts to avoid being misled ….. would it?

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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UPDATE: Mona Charen was on to this yesterday afternoon, and had much to add –

Now even $32 seems like a very small amount of money per person, but that is only a small part of the largesse provided by the U.S. government, which spent $522 billion on low-income assistance programs in 2002. It doesn’t count hot breakfasts and lunches at school (which push high-calorie, high-fat diets on kids). It doesn’t count the Earned Income Tax Credit by which the working poor get cash back from the federal government ($41.4 billion went to 22.2 million recipients last year, according to the Los Angeles Times). It doesn’t include housing subsidies, Medicaid or the Supplemental Security Income program, which can free up funds for food. Nor does it count the WIC program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

….. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute notes that while he can recall visiting rural Mississippi in the 1960s and seeing severe cases of malnutrition, the problem among the poor today is more likely to be obesity. Today, 70 percent of low-income Americans are overweight, compared with 60 percent of the non-poor.

….. We are pushing food at the poor as if hunger and malnutrition still crouched at the door when the bigger threat these days is saturated fat and excess sugar. The Food Stamp program arguably needs a massive reform, offering cash grants instead of vouchers or credit cards, which encourage over-consumption. Is it too much to ask that politicians and journalists (that photo of Gov. Kulongoski showed up everywhere) address today’s problems and not those of 40 years ago?

UPDATE 2, Apr. 29: NixGuy

That this whole fraud is exposed by a bloggers and columnists should be a source of shame and embarrassment to journalists everywhere. Yet it isn’t. Well, it’s a free country and they can print what they want. They have nothing to lose but their credibility.

John Stossel: Why Not Have an Economic Progress Day Celebration?

Filed under: Business Moves,Economy,Environment,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 9:42 am

Great idea from Stossel, who makes huge points about capitalism’s relationship to environmental improvement (links are in original):

John Semmens of Arizona’s Laissez Faire Institute points out that Earth Day misses an important point. In the April issue of The Freeman magazine, Semmens says the environmental movement overlooks how hospitable the earth has become — thanks to technology. “The environmental alarmists have it backwards. If anything imperils the earth it is ignorant obstruction of science and progress. … That technology provides the best option for serving human wants and conserving the environment should be evident in the progress made in environmental improvement in the United States. Virtually every measure shows that pollution is headed downward and that nature is making a comeback.”

….. Human ingenuity and technology not only raised living standards, but also restored environmental amenities. How about a day to celebrate that? Yet, Semmens writes, the environmental movement is skeptical about technology and is attracted to three dubious principles: sustainable development, the precautionary principle, and stakeholder participation.

The point of sustainable development, Semmens says, “is to minimize the use of nonrenewable natural resources so there will be more left for future generations.” Sounds sensible — who is for “unsustainable” development?

But as the great economist Julian Simon often pointed out, resources are manmade, not natural. Jed Clampett cheered when he found oil on his land because it made him rich enough to move to Beverly Hills. But his great-grandfather would have cursed the disgusting black gunk because Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner hadn’t yet discovered that kerosene could be distilled from it.

….. The precautionary principle, popular in Europe, is the idea that no new thing should be permitted until it has been proved harmless. Sounds good, except as Ron Bailey of Reason writes, it basically means, “Don’t ever do anything for the first time.”

Stakeholder participation means that busybodies would be permitted to intrude on private transactions. Semmens’s example is DDT, which for years would have saved children from deadly malaria, except that “‘stakeholders’ from the environmental quarter have prevailed on governments to ban the trade in this product.”

The first victims of these principles are the poor. We rich Westerners can withstand a lot of policy foolishness. But people in the developing world live on the edge, so anything that retards economic progress — including measures to arrest global warming — will bring incredible hardship to the most vulnerable on the planet.

Stossel’s idea to hold Economic Progress Day to counter the nonsense of Earth Day is very good, but I think I have a better one.

Starting next year, I suggest holding Economic Progress Day on May Day to drown out once and for all the old, worn-out, dangerous, and discredited socialist cliches we have to endure every May 1.

Positivity: Woman, 95, to Be Oldest College Graduate

Filed under: Education,Positivity — Tom @ 6:59 am

From Hays, KS:

When 95-year-old Nola Ochs graduates next month, she will be the world’s oldest college graduate. The record Ochs will break, according to Guinness World Records, belongs to Mozelle Richardson, who at age 90 in 2004 received a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma.

On Thursday, the Kansas Legislature honored Ochs with praise and standing ovations.

Ochs did not plan to break records. She started taking classes at a community college after her husband of 39 years, Vernon, died in 1972. A class here and there over the years, and she was close to having enough hours for an undergraduate degree.

Last fall, Ochs moved the 100 miles from her farm to an apartment at Fort Hays State University to complete the final 30 hours to get a general studies degree with an emphasis on history.

An added joy for Ochs is that her 21-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra Ochs, will graduate with her.

“How many people my age have a chance to hang out with their grandmothers? She’s really accepted by the other students,” Alexandra said. “They enjoy her, but probably not as much as I do.”

With her white hair pulled into a bun, Nola Ochs walks purposely down hallways to classes with her books in a cloth tote bag. Students nod and smile; she is described as witty, charming and down to earth.

“Everybody has accepted me, and I feel just like another student,” she said. “The students respect me.”

She added: “I don’t dwell on my age. It might limit what I can do. As long as I have my mind and health, it’s just a number.”

Todd Leahy, history department chairman, wondered at first if Ochs could keep up with the other students. After her second week, all doubts were gone. Now he wants to record oral histories with her after she graduates.

“I can tell them about it, but to have Nola in class adds a dynamic that can’t be topped,” Leahy said. “It’s a firsthand perspective you seldom get.”

For instance, Ochs offered recollections of the 1930s Dust Bowl – skies so dark that lamps were lit during the day, and wet sheets placed over windows to keep out dust that sounded like pelting sleet hitting the house.

“We should all be so lucky and do such amazing things. Her achievement challenges us all to reach for our own goals and dreams,” said Tom Nelson, chief operating officer of the American Association of Retired Persons.

Ochs is proudest of being the matriarch of a family that includes three sons – a fourth died in 1995 – along with 13 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.

After graduation, Ochs might travel or take some more classes at a community college. And after that, “I’m going to seek employment on a cruise ship as a storyteller,” she said, smiling.