March 30, 2008

WV Paper’s Report on Food Stamps: Closer To the Truth than Most of Old Media

In a Wednesday story on food stamp program participation in West Virginia that is still being linked at Drudge this evening, Charleston Daily Mail writer Justin D. Anderson fell into the same trap reporters have been falling into for nearly a year, but later largely made up for it by acknowledging that the program is a supplement, and is not designed, or intended, to pay for all of its beneficiaries’ food costs.

Here are paragraphs 1, 5, and 6 of Anderson’s report:

About one in every six West Virginians gets food stamps, the highest level of participation in at least 30 years.

….. A total of 122,877 of the state’s estimated 743,064 households currently receive food stamps. That’s up from 105,365 households in 2003.

But while the number of people on the program has jumped sharply, the federal government has raised the average per-person monthly benefits over that time by just $12 to $85.

The last excerpted sentence clearly demonstrates that Anderson either does not have a sufficient grasp of how the Food Stamp program works, or wasn’t interested in accurately communicating it.

The federal government does NOT raise “average per-person monthly benefits,” as Anderson claims. It DOES raise what it refers to as the Maximum Monthly Allotment (MMA) once a year, effective October 1. The MMA is the benefit a Food Stamp beneficiary with no income or resources of their own will receive. Here is what has happened to the Maximum Monthly Allotment since October 1, 2003:

FoodStampMMA2003and2007

(October 1, 2003 source is here. October 1, 2007 source is here.)

As has been described before in many posts, beneficiaries are expected to spend money on food out of their own income and assets, based on an analysis of each person’s or family’s situation. To the extent that the formulas determine that income and assets should be available, the MMA is reduced. This USDA web site link describes the process in more detail.

In West Virginia, the effect of the formula-based reductions has been to reduce the average benefit disbursed to a Food Stamp beneficiary in 2003 and 2007 to $73 and $85, respectively.

As I’ve noted several times previously (last example here: NewsBusters; BizzyBlog), if there is something wrong with the Food Stamp income/resources formulas, those who wish to reform the program have yet to specify what it is.

But give Anderson significant credit for noting something later in his report that those what have spent the last year organizing “Food Stamp Challenge” publicity stunts, and most reporters covering them, have rarely acknowledged:

The food stamp benefit is based on income and the number of people in a household, (Sarah) Young (of the Department of Health and Human Resources) said. Monthly benefits range from a minimum of $10 to $1,219 for a 10-person household with little to no income.

Young said the benefit was always meant to supplemental (sic) a family’s income, not to totally cover a month’s worth of groceries.

Anderson did a better job of noting the supplemental intent and design of the program than his supposedly more esteemed colleagues at papers like the New York Times (link requires free registration) and the Washington Post have done. I would like to have seen the point emphasized sooner, but in the context of the horrid coverage I have seen elsewhere, my complaint is a relative quibble.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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