Above: Screen grab from "Fox News Reporting: The Great Food Stamp Binge."
Given the Republican rumblings in Congress, Celia Cole, the CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network, figured it was only a matter of time before Fox News launched an attack on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program better known as food stamps.
This summer, House Republicans held up a bipartisan Senate Farm Bill with demands for $40 billion in cuts to the food stamps program, as well as work and drug testing requirements for beneficiaries. (A previous bill with only $20 billion in cuts failed in June because they were deemed not deep enough.) The ethos espoused by House bill backers is that the best way to help the poor and hungry is to let them help themselves. Legislators also cited misuse and fraud as pressing concerns.
Then, on Friday, Fox News aired a special report titled “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The network inferred that the dramatic rise in food stamp recipients, from 28 million to 47 million since 2008, was a result of the Obama administration’s welfare society and an affront to American self-reliance and mettle. The surge in people on food stamps, the special argued, has nothing to do with our crappy economy and the working poor who need help buying food for their families. Instead Fox posited that it could be a conspiracy to grow the size of government.
Fox interviewed an unemployed beach bum and aspiring rock star in La Jolla, California who bought a lobster with a SNAP card. The special also pointed to a social worker acting on behalf of the USDA who’s allegedly tearing down “mountain pride” in Appalachia—the mindset that families should tighten their belt straps (literally) before relying on government help—by getting residents in Ashe County, North Carolina to use SNAP funds on seeds for their gardens, a sort of gateway drug to wider food stamp usage. The Fox special was catnip for conservative bloggers and live bait for other media outlets.
“Normally we don’t justify these kinds of reports with a response,” Cole told the Observer. But in this case, Cole said, the Texas Food Bank Network felt compelled to address the misinformation. “Too many people judge the poor without ever walking in their shoes,” she said. The Fox special, she added, failed to interview anyone suffering from poverty and lack of access to nutritious food.
“The truth is that one in seven Americans do receive SNAP because one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty level,” Cole stated in a press release on Monday. “SNAP is also one of the most efficient and effective government programs with program error and fraud at historic lows. Less than four percent of benefits are issued in error.”
Moreover, the food stamps program doesn’t serve as a long-term form of dependency for most recipients, Cole said in a follow-up interview. The average participant receives benefits for 19 months, and new applicants typically receive benefits for just nine months. Cole said the program is correlative to people’s income—when it drops, they go on food stamps, and when it rises again, they go off the program.
In the Fox special, libertarian political scientist Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) argues that the stigma surrounding food stamps is a good thing—or at least a necessarily evil. People should feel self-conscious about going on the dole. But, said Cole, “Having access to nutritious food should be no more stigmatized than Medicaid or Social Security. SNAP participants are taxpayers, too. They’ve paid into the program.”
While states can waive the requirement that participants are either employed or seeking employment, Texas does no such thing. All able-bodied Texas food stamp recipients between 18 and 59 must either work, be looking for work, or be engaged in job training for thirty hours each week. And adults without dependents are barred from the program if they work less than twenty hours a week for longer than three months in any three-year period.
Cole said that the more pressing issue is that the application process is complicated and daunting. One-third of those who qualify don’t seek help from the food stamps program. The Texas Food Bank Network’s partners don’t put money toward marketing food stamps—they’re not allowed to, by law—but, said Cole, “Our partners do try to reach the people who most need assistance, but don’t know how to get it.”