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 stateâ€™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 Programâ€™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):
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 householdâ€™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 Programâ€™s table assumes that Food Stamp recipients will spend more, and itâ€™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 itâ€™s the case that USDAâ€™s allotments are inadequate, or that the deductions for available resources are unreasonable. But the allotments are closely in line with the â€œThrifty Planâ€ version of the agencyâ€™s most recent “Cost of Food at Home” report (link is to a page containing links to each monthâ€™s report in PDF format), and it isnâ€™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):
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 NewsBusters.org.
UPDATE: Dean at Hugh Hewitt’s place gets in some Grade A choice cuts at Challenge participant and Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts