November 30, 2009

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.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice analysis…linked on FaceBook … looking forward to parts 2 and 3!

    Comment by Maggie — November 30, 2009 @ 10:24 am

  2. [...] 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 participant, [...]

    Pingback by BizzyBlog — November 30, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  3. I have a family of five adult-sized people. There is no way I spend almost $800 a month on food, are they crazy? Even if we’re having a good month and go out a couple of times it doesn’t come close to that. It’s more like $500/month, depending on what other bills we have to pay.

    Comment by Astronomy — December 2, 2009 @ 4:58 am

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