November 30, 2009

Reviewing NYT’s Food Stamp Report, Part 2 of 3: Paper Ignores Stimulus-Driven 30% Benefit Increases

Filed under: Economy,MSM Biz/Other Ignorance,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 3:21 pm

FoodStampMontage

The New York Times’s Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff published a long Saturday report on the Food Stamp program that went into print on Sunday.

This is the second of three posts on their coverage; the first went up earlier today at NewsBusters and BizzyBlog. It addressed the pair’s seeming happiness with the massive increase in program participation, their apparent unhappiness that 15-16 million who could be getting Food Stamps aren’t, and their sense of relief that the “stigma” attached to being on a form of government dole has significantly dissipated.

This post will deal with something that should have been right in front of the Times pair’s faces: Even before considering loosened eligibility standards (the third post will deal with that), Food Stamp benefits (gross and net) have increased by much more than the rate of food inflation during the past couple of years, especially in the past year, during which the increase in net benefits has been a whopping 30%.

Here are a few article excerpts from the Times report that deal with benefit levels (the first excerpted paragraph originally appeared in between the two other sets of paragraphs presented):

Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid —

28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.

…. With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job. He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five children.

He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

…. Sarah and Tyrone Mangold started the year on track to make $70,000 — she was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Together they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children, including one with a neurological disorder aggravated by poor nutrition.

They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat.

“We were being really snippy, having anxiety attacks,” Ms. Mangold said. “People get irritable when they’re hungry.”

Food stamps now fortify the family income by $623 a month, and Mr. Mangold, who is still patching together odd jobs, no longer objects.

“I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids.”

This chart of gross and net benefits for fiscal years beginning October 1, 2007, 2008, and 2009 tells the story (data sources identified below):

FoodStampBenesOct2007toOct2009

The Maximum Monthly Allotment is the USDA’s term for the gross benefit. It is what an individual or household receives if there were no other resources available as determined under program eligibility rules for that person or household to pay for food. October 1, 2009 figures are at the USDA’s site. Previous posts documented the MMAs as of October 1, 2008 and 2007, respectively. Note that 2008 benefit levels corresponded very closely to what the USDA considers the cost of its “Thrifty Meal Plan” budget.

The Net Per-Person benefit is an estimate sourced as follows:

  • As of October 1, 2009, it is the $130 the Times pair cited in their report.
  • For the previous two Octobers, it is the $23 and $21 per-week average benefit cited by the purveyors of the “Food Stamp Challenge” converted into a monthly amount.

The Net Per-Person benefit is the result of subtracting resources deemed available to pay for food. The general rule is that 30% of beneficiaries’ “net monthly income” — an amount that is determined, as seen at the same USDA fact sheet, only after deducting several items from one’s income or net pay — is expected to be available to pay for food.

The food inflation figures came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of September 2009 and September 2008. Although annual MMA benefit adjustments are actually based on a slightly earlier 12-month span than identified here, the points being made here wouldn’t substantially change.

Based on the figures presented, it’s pretty darned obvious that gross benefits have ratcheted up significantly, while the average deductions against MMA/gross benefits have actually shrunk a bit. The 2007-2008 change was not much different than real food inflation, and may have matched it pretty closely if the adjustment was based on a mid-summer 2007-2008 measurement. But the 2008-2009 increase is off the charts, even though the cost of food eaten at home has gone down.

Most of the 2008-2009 increase actually took effect six month earlier in April as a result of the stimulus package passed in February. A Massachusetts social services site has the details

Times reporters DeParle and Gebeloff never mentioned that the increases were stimulus-driven in their report; in fact, they didn’t discuss year-over-year increases at all. They never considered that the 30% higher benefit levels might be drawing more government dependents into the program. They never addressed why, if previous benefit levels were sufficient under a thrifty meal plan approach, taxpayers should be expected to pay for what is now clearly more than that.

The Food Stamp program has apparently morphed from an “eat well, but watch your pennies” approach to “eat as you’re used to eating (or close to it)” design without one iota of notice or debate. Heritage’s Robert Rector, who told the Times that the program has devolved into something that is “really not different from cash welfare,” is at least partially vindicated.

But it’s even worse than that. Earlier this year Ohio’s Warren County exposed how liberalized eligibility rules are allowing many households who reasonable people would contend have no right to receive Food Stamp benefits to get them. That, and journalistic errors the Times committed in reporting it, will be the subject of Part 3.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

Reviewing NYT’s Food Stamp Report, Part 1 of 3: Paper Cheers Growth, Loss of Stigma

FoodStampMontageIn a long Saturday report on the Food Stamp program that went into print on Sunday, the New York Times’s Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff:

  • Almost seemed to celebrate the program’s explosive growth.
  • Bemoaned the fact that many who could participate do not.
  • Both in their title (“Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades”) and text, cheered the loss of stigma that has long been associated with the program.
  • Failed to note not only gross and net benefit increases during the past two years that have far outpaced real inflation in food prices, but also the loosening of eligibility rules in many states, including Ohio.
  • Speaking of Ohio, omitted key facts and injected blatant bias into a situation from earlier this year in the Buckeye State’s Warren County that outraged those who believe the program was meant only for those who would truly suffer if its benefits weren’t available.

DeParle’s and Gebeloff’s work is part of a Times series that “examines how the safety net is holding up under the worst economic crisis in decades.” My series of posts on the pair’s report with have three parts. This first one will deal with the first three items listed above.

What follow are excerpts touching on each the first three items just mentioned, followed by my reactions.

Celebrate, Celebrate

With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

That 36 million represents just under 12% of the nation’s population, and is up from a 28.4 million average during 2008.

I suspect that many who have seen with their own eyes what some Food Stamp recipients buy with their benefits might see the healthy items DeParle and Gebeloff as cleverly selective and woefully incomplete.

Desiring More Dependency

Although the program is growing at a record rate, the federal official who oversees it would like it to grow even faster.

“I think the response of the program has been tremendous,” said Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture, “but we’re mindful that there are another 15, 16 million who could benefit.”

Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri.

There’s something out of whack going on when a government official calls the growth of an entitlement program “tremendous.” Cloward-Piven’s stated desire for “’a massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls’ in an effort to overwhelm the system” comes to mind.

The 15-16 million stat cited is as big as it is at least partially because of loosened eligibility rules that have taken effect during the past year or so. I will address that in a later part.

California’s alleged 50% participation shortfall is a little hard to believe, given that the percentage of the state’s population on traditional “welfare” (now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF], which was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] until the mid-1990s) is more than triple that of the rest of the USA, as of September 2008:

CaliVsUSwelfareGraphs0609

The second graph above shows that California’s caseload has grown during the past few years, while the rest of the nation’s has declined.

So Californians seem quite willing to go on welfare, but are reluctant to sign up for Food Stamps? That doesn’t compute. It may be that the 50% figure is artificially low because that the not-so-Golden State has millions of illegal immigrants who might be financially “eligible” but are by law prevented from receiving benefits. Or it could be that California’s state-supplemented traditional welfare benefits are high enough to keep many of those recipients from qualifying for Food Stamps.

Destigmatizing Dependency

Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor. President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has embraced.

The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Geez, usage “plunged for several years” because the economy during the late-1990s was pretty good. It perhaps also went down because millions left the TANF/AFDC rolls. Many who did so probably lost interest in receiving government handouts in general.

It would be interesting to see if the Times ever noted that Bush 43 expanded the Food Stamp promotional effort while he was actually in office. I somehow doubt it. The promotional credit the Times assigns to Mr. Clinton is dubious. As you’ll see from the history, program participation as percentage of the population didn’t begin to increase until 2002 (2001′s increase was smaller than the overall population increase).

I also suspect that many in the poverty/social services industry were less than pleased that welfare reform in 1996 reduced their client base, and after a few years figured out that going more aggressively after Food Stamp participation would ward off the otherwise declining level of dependency and perhaps help them secure their government jobs.

Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation is quoted in the article as saying that the program has in essence morphed into something that is “really not different from cash welfare.” It’s hard to disagree with Rector, especially in light of what I will address in the second and third parts of this series.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

Positivity: U.S. bishops launch Advent and Christmas website

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 7:14 am

From Washington:

Nov 29, 2009 / 08:55 pm (CNA).- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has created an Advent and Christmas website with suggestions for daily prayers, readings, reflection and action. A collection of Lessons and Carols is also provided for live listening or download.

Printable calendars in English and Spanish are one new feature of the site, a USCCB press release says. They suggest a family activity for each day of Advent, which begins on Nov. 29, and for each day of the Christmas Season.

Many of the calendar’s reflections are taken from four of the collections from the Spiritual Thoughts Series by Pope Benedict XVI: “Following Christ,” “The Priesthood,” “Mary” and “The Saints.”

The Festival of Lessons and Carols, a service of Scripture and song that dates to the late 19th century, is available for download at the site. It also lists recommended holiday-themed movies, prayers and blessings from the USCCB publication, “Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers.”

…. The Advent/Christmas web site is at http://www.usccb.org/advent/

Go here for the full story.