May 22, 2007

The Bogus ‘Food Stamp Challenge’ Spreads; Gullible Media and The Left Eat It Up

It has been over three weeks since the fundamental claim of the “Food Stamp Challenge” was debunked, first by Mona Charen in her syndicated column, then in more detail by yours truly (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog). Yet the “Food Stamp Challenge” has spread.

As noted in this NPR report from April 23, it all started in Oregon. That state’s governor, Ted Kulongoski, joined in and put on quite a show, getting plenty of Old Media attention (Associated Press; New York Times [may require free registration]) as he tried to buy a week’s worth of groceries with $21, because that was said to be what “the state’s average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries.”

The Challenge’s claim that the average Food Stamp recipient’s benefit of $21 per person per week is all that beneficiaries have available for purchasing food is incorrect, as anyone visiting the USDA’s web site could have learned very easily.

As I noted in late April, the Food Stamp Program’s “Fact Sheet on Resources, Income and Benefits” provides a table of “Maximum Monthly Allotments” (i.e., benefits), and says the following about benefit levels (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):

Food Stamps

The average Allotment/benefit of $21 per person per week (assuming that this figure is indeed correct) is less than the amounts in the table because the program is means tested, as the USDA also clearly states on the same page (bold is mine):

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.

If (according to formulas that are too complicated to go into here) a household has the resources to pay part of that $27 – $36, that household doesn’t get the entire amount of the potential benefit. The overhyped $21 amount is therefore definitely NOT what an average food stamp recipient has available to spend 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.

Despite the clearly bogus $21 constraint, the “Food Stamp Challenge” has spread. It has been taken up by at least four congresspersons, and eaten up with fawning approval by The Washington Post, McJoan (with 351 unskeptical comments at last count) at Daily Kos, and Andrea Seabrook at NPR in Washington.

To Seabrook’s credit, she at least noted that $21 per person per week (“$1 per meal”) is not what Food Stamp recipients are expected to spend on food. But she never got to the size of the differences, and let Illinois’ Jan Schakowsky, the congressperson she was accompanying, complain about how Food Stamps don’t pay for non-food items like toilet paper (uh, they’re FOOD stamps), and how “36 million Americans have a hard time feeding themselves” (Seabrook did note later that the Food Stamp Program has 25 million recipients). And the web page for Seabrook’s report is misleadingly titled “House Members Eat at Food-Stamp Level for a Week.”

For those who believe that some of the states involved might have higher or lower benefits, I have verified that the table above reflects Allotment/benefit levels in Oregon (at previous post), Illinois (at the site of Illinois Pro Bono) and Ohio (a page from the state’s web site converted to HTML; amounts are at the end).

Whether or not the Allotment/benefit levels are adequate is a legitimate subject. But as I noted last month:

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.

NixGuy properly assigns the blame for why the false claim that the average Food Stamp recipient has “$21 to make it through the whole week” (a direct quote from one of the earlier Oregon participants) has acquired near urban-legend status:

At this point, (Old Media has) ….. crossed the line from dumb ignorance to willful propaganda. There is no excuse…..

….. The problem ….. is that we have a willing and complicit media which will not hesitate to reprint a politician’s press release without even a hint of background research or attempt at finding an opposing view. Because even the barest amount of research would have put the lie to this sham.

Hey, but their intentions are good right?!

It also should be noted that Ohio Congressman and “Challenge” participant Tim Ryan should have been tipped off to the means-testing problem by a commenter at his Day 1 blog post where he (Ryan) chronicled his attempt to stay within $21 (third comment at post):

Congressman -

With all due respect, isn’t food stamps an assistance program that is not designed to be a person’s entire food budget? Shouldn’t those persons recieving food stamps also be contributing some of their own income?

But like Old Media, it appears that the Congressman didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a shameless, and bogus, publicity stunt.

Cross-posted at


UPDATE: Dean at Hugh Hewitt’s place gets in some Grade A choice cuts at Challenge participant and Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts



  1. Wait a minute – you are telling me that the maximum monthly allotment for a household of 3 is $408??

    My family’s monthly FOOD budget (that’s strictly food – not daily household items which I classify under its own heading) is only $350.00. It’s been that way since 2005, and I haven’t raised it since. And we eat just fine.

    So if a successful working man like myself only needs $350 a month for food to support a family of three, why does a struggling family on food stamps need $58 more? And my family eats pretty well – granted, we almost never go out to eat and we use plenty of coupons, but we pretty much eat what we want.

    Comment by swizstick — May 22, 2007 @ 2:17 pm

  2. #1, Have been waiting for someone to tell me what you just told me.

    I’m sure you know from reading the post that the $408 for a family of 3 often get reduced for other resources that are available, but your point stands.

    It didn’t strike me as awful either.

    And I’ll add that Charen’s column points to the more important problem among the poor as being obesity, not starvation or malnutrition as traditionally defined. It takes a lot more than $21 per person per week to eat junk.

    Comment by TBlumer — May 22, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

  3. I understood the $21.00 figure per week as being selected because it was stated it was the average amount – meaning there were people who received more and people who received less. I would have preferred there to be more of a focus on how to you eat healthy for that amount per week, since I think many of us have demonstrated it’s possible but I don’t think where it is clearly listed it is the average amount that’s a “scam” – if they did the challenge (which I agree is a pr move more than anything) at the highest maximum amount you’d have scores of people stating they receive food stamps and get much less than that.

    Comment by Lisa Renee — May 22, 2007 @ 8:51 pm

  4. This kind of political pandering makes me sick. Thanks for exposing it for what it is.

    Off topic, but I was curious if any of the Kos kids mentioned Wal-Mart in their comments about food stamps. Suprise, suprise, you can’t search Kos comments with the ALT/F “find”. What are they trying to hide?

    Comment by John in IL — May 22, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

  5. #3 Lisa Renee, the scam part is when people (i.e., those carrying out the publicity stunt) cross the line and say that $21 is all someone has to or can spend on food per person per week. It just aint’ so.

    In a truly destitute situation, a single person would get the $155 a month ($36 a week) noted above, a 2-person household $284, etc.. It’s not a king’s ransom, but if you’re going to focus on how to eat healthy for a given amount per week, the numbers in the table are the ones to focus on, NOT $21.

    #4, my FF for Mac word search worked fine at Kos, and found several instances of “Walmart” (without the hyphen).

    Comment by TBlumer — May 22, 2007 @ 10:42 pm

  6. You’re right. I got the error message only through the link. When I tried accessing the site directly, no error message. Sorry for being paranoid.

    Comment by John in IL — May 23, 2007 @ 12:31 am

  7. 202-628-0205 – Tim Ryan on CSPAN Now

    Comment by Sam Vance — May 23, 2007 @ 9:34 am

  8. If they are not precluding it with this is the “average amount” that’s true, and that fault would be on the media sources who don’t make that clear. I haven’t read all of the releases but the ones I have did make it very clear that was an average. If I missed some from those doing this that did not make this clear, then I agree with you, that doesn’t help. Why? Because by not making it clear it turns the focus on the amount rather than the larger issues, some which are valid.

    Personally, as I stated no matter the amount they selected whether it be $21.00 or $36.00 a week, I would have liked to see the focus be not just based on the “OMG they are not getting enough” but also on how it’s hard, you have to be creative but it is possible to make healthy choices. Yes, that would in essence ruin the whole aspect of trying to make things look bad but realistically the larger positive could have been getting information out there for those people who are on limited budgets food stamps or no food stamps that don’t believe they can eat healthy.

    Comment by Lisa Renee — May 23, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  9. #8, Lisa Renee, unfortunately for you and me and the cause of healthy eating, the Challenge’s only agenda was “to make things look bad.”

    Comment by TBlumer — May 23, 2007 @ 12:17 pm

  10. Actually based on consumers total income, after utility bills are paid, most do not even have $21.00 a week left for food. Most only recieve $10-30 per month. That is with the only other income being $500-$600.00 income. So this challenge will be spreading awarness to those that fall between the cracks and have to survive on much less than publically known.

    Comment by Crystal Roark — May 24, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

  11. #10, if you want to debate the correctness of the aid formulas, fine. Then talk about that.

    You’re saying that the average family doesn’t have $6-$15 a week available for food that the government formulas think they should have ($27-$36 minus the $21 average). Color me very skeptical.

    I don’t think you know that, and it’s up to those who want to expand the program to prove it. Perhaps if they spent less time on publicity stunts and more time on research, they might be able to make a convincing case.

    Comment by TBlumer — May 24, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

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