June 8, 2007

Food Stamp Follies (Mostly) Continue, As Does Old Media’s Gullible Coverage

Give Food Stamp Challenge organizers in Michigan and New Haven, Connecticut some credit.We’ll probably never know whether they figured it out on their own, or perhaps read of other organizers’ errors when they were pointed out by syndicated columnist Mona Charen and by yours truly (at NewsBusters here and here; at BizzyBlog here and here). But unlike their comrades in most other cities and states, they have at least framed their Challenge using a correct amount of $35 per person per week ($5 per person per day) based on this table, which was adapted from information available at the USDA’s web site (near the bottom at link; the weekly amount is result of dividing by 4.345, the average number of weeks in a month):


From Michigan (HT The Other Club):

State Rep. Andy Coulouris, D-Saginaw, is among state and local officials who this week will be trying to eat on the $5-a-day per-person maximum food stamp benefit. Advocates want to give officials an idea of what it’s like for low-income families to buy adequate and nutritious food on such a limited budget.

An article in Connecticut’s New Haven Daily Register details the efforts of a family of three accurately attempting to live on $5 per person per day for 5 days.

Actual Food Stamp benefits disbursed are often lower than the amounts listed on the table above, because the program’s formulas assume that families should in many cases be able to provide for a portion of their food needs from their own resources. The average benefit per person is apparently $21 per week after taking beneficiaries’ available resources into account.

Nevertheless, politicians and others participating in other Food Stamp Challenges around the country, and Old Media reporters covering the Challenges, either haven’t caught on to the idea that the $21 amount Challenge participants began trying to get by on in Oregon in April, and elsewhere since then, is simply incorrect — or they don’t care.

In the first paragraph of their story today about how DC politicians Eleanor Holmes Norton and Vincent Gray have taken up the Challenge, the Washington Post’s Sue Anne Presley Montes and Nikita Stewart are, uh, totally out to lunch:

Norton, Gray Get a Taste of Lean Times
Officials See Just How Little the Average Allocation of $21 a Week Buys Someone

For seven days, they are trying to do what the average food stamp recipient in the United States must do routinely: live on a mere $21 a week in food. Already, the latest participants in the “Food Stamp Challenge” are hungry and humbled.

Sorry, Sue Anne and Nikita. That is flat-out wrong.

If they aren’t getting it right in Washington, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas isn’t either. She too is taking up the Challenge at the bogus $21 weekly level (second-last paragraph at link — “$1 per meal, per day”).

The Denver Post’s coverage failed what should be called the Food Stamp Math Challenge (or is it the Incoherence Challenge?):

Lucia Guzman stalked the aisles of Safeway, comparing various peanut butters and types of beans. She carefully tallied the cost of the items in her basket on a small pad of paper.

Guzman, executive director of the Mayor’s Office for Human Rights and Community Relations, and other city officials agreed to live on food-stamp rations for two days or a week – roughly $3 a day, or $25 per person per week.

Huh? How many layers of fact-checking did that one get through?

Of course, whether $35 per person per week (or the smaller amounts per person as family size increases noted above) is enough, or whether the formulas used for determining available resources are appropriate, are legitimate topics for debate. For example, the Thrifty Food Plan (click on the most recent month available at the link to see a PDF of the plan) identifies costs per person that are often within the ranges of the table above (sometimes with lots of room to spare), but in some cases exceed the table amounts by as much as 15% – 20% or so. Perhaps making the Maximum Allotments (before taking available resources into account) exactly match the Thrifty Table would make sense, and would act as an automatic escalator or de-escalator as food costs change. But it would seem that keeping the Plan’s table from turning into a political football could then easily become a “challenge” of a different sort.

Regardless, what is out of bounds, absent contrary evidence, is incorrectly framing the debate by claiming that the poor “live on” (and only have available resources to pay for) $21 worth of food a week, as the Washington Post article and so many other Old Media reporters continue to claim.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.


UPDATE: This report from North Carolina, which covers several persons erroneously using the $21 benchmark, tells us that:

Nationally, about 26.7 million people received food stamps in 2006, at a cost of nearly $33 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That apparently includes administrative costs.

This one from Massachusetts says that:

Nationally, the average monthly food stamp benefit in fiscal 2005 was $94.05, or about $3 a day, according to the US Department of Agriculture. (It ranged geographically from $76.39 in Wisconsin to $163.85 in the US territory of Guam.)

Yeah, but not every month has 31 days. The true weekly average spread through a year is $21.70 (94.05 x 12 divided by 52). They can’t even get the net number right.

As far as I can tell, having looked at about a half-dozen specific states, the table at the beginning of this post is the same for everyone. The variance in state benefits apparently has to do with how costs for other living expenses differ and affect the “how much can they afford to pay from their own resources?” calculations.

UPDATE 2: Some others not getting it right –

UPDATE 3: On the other hand, this KC Star reporter used $5.54 per day, which is actually a bit higher than $35.67 divided by 7. She called it “$129.50 per week — the maximum amount a family of four can receive on food stamps.” $129.50 divided by 7, then divided by 4 is $4.63. I have no idea how she got to $5.54.



  1. Has anyone taking this so-called challenge tried shopping at Aldi’s or (oh, the horror) Wal-Mart? For that matter, have they looked into the Sharefood program (I believe it is nationwide)?

    Comment by triticale — June 8, 2007 @ 8:57 am

  2. Sheesh. Is it possible to starve if you are given $5 a day to purchase food? Only if you mismanage the money terribly.

    and if you are not dying from starvation might I suggest that you shut up and go find skills and a job if you want more than ramen noodles.

    The purpose of food stamps is to keep people from starving, period. And it’s a job that can and should be adequately managed at the state and local level.

    Comment by dave — June 8, 2007 @ 9:06 am

  3. #1, hard not to notice that Challenge participants go to stores like Safeway. Haven’t seen a Wal-Mart superstore mentioned yet.

    Comment by TBlumer — June 8, 2007 @ 9:29 am

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