Saturday, November 02, 2013

Media coverage of SNAP (food stamp) cuts

A temporary boost to SNAP benefits, which was instituted in 2009 as part of the federal government's response to the Great Recession, ended yesterday (November 1). This means that all SNAP participants, approximately 48 million Americans, have reduced benefits this year. For example, a 4-person family will lose $36 in monthly benefits. Overall, the cuts amount to approximately $5 billion in the 2014 fiscal year. Congress is contemplating further cuts as part of Farm Bill negotiations between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Media organizations this week covered these cuts in slightly different ways, but generally agreed on the overall message.

The concern that SNAP participants will turn to emergency food sources such as food pantries was featured by Julie Siple at Minnesota Public Radio and by Marisol Bello at USA Today.

Perhaps surprisingly, media outlets that are considered more conservative or more market-oriented highlighted many of the same themes.  FoxNews did expand on AP coverage by giving high-profile space to a claim by Michael Tanner at the Cato Institute that lax eligibility requirements contributed to recent caseload increases.  Yet, that same story quoted Ellen Vollinger from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and also described the cuts themselves in stark terms, saying SNAP benefits were being "slashed."

In this sense, FoxNews provided essentially the same mix of views as did the Minnesota Public Radio story, which included an interview with Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute, who emphasized that the 2009 increase was always intended to be temporary.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that is considered comparatively liberal, but whose reports are always careful with facts and largely free of spin, similarly acknowledged in a very informative report and press release that the 2009 increase was intended to be temporary.  I imagine that most journalists covering this story had read the Center's report.

A separate FoxNews story by Joseph Weber on October 30 claimed that a crackdown on food stamp fraud could "save millions," but the body of the article recognized that the potential savings from such efforts really may be quite small, amounting to less than 1 percent of total program costs.  Moreover, I could not find the FoxNews statistic in the "recent" USDA Inspector General audit report on which it was supposedly based.  The most recent related national audit report from the Inspector General appears to be this 2012 report (.pdf), which includes some praise for existing USDA efforts along with some suggestions for improvement.  The report concludes with a statement that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) agreed with all the suggestions and planned to implement them by September, 2013, along with a statement from the Inspector General that this response was satisfactory.

Derek Wallbank and Alan Bjerga at Bloomberg News included fascinating coverage of related food retail business topics, including comments from retailers who are highly concerned about the benefit cuts and also those, such as Walmart, that may prosper in times when hard-hit consumers are even more price conscious.

I spent a good deal of time this week speaking to media about the SNAP cuts.  Because I had never before done a live television news interview, perhaps the most interesting was a conversation last night with Elaine Reyes of China's CCTV America network (my interview begins at minute 30:00).  I pointed out that the SNAP program is a particularly important part of the general social safety net in the United States, and that the economic recovery from the Great Recession has been slow, only recently beginning to provide improved private-sector opportunities for low-wage workers, so many people feel that now is a tough time for cuts.

In general, across the spectrum of coverage, I saw perhaps more balance and consistency than I might have expected.  Food stamp policy used to be fairly bipartisan, because the program was perceived more favorably in the United States than cash assistance programs have been perceived.  In the House of Representatives in particular, food stamp policy used to be decided through bipartisan conversations in the Agriculture Committee's hearing room, rather than fiery speeches on the floor of the House.  I wonder if the end of the budget shutdown has cooled some tempers and shown some limits to political rhetoric that really seeks to stick it to poor people.

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