Recent profiles of successful individuals illustrate how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- formerly known as "food stamps" -- helps disadvantaged people achieve success, delivering a blow to common right-wing narratives about the program cultivating laziness among recipients.
On February 19, social networking giant Facebook purchased WhatsApp -- a messaging application for smartphones -- for $19 billion. The move made WhatsApp Inc. co-founder Jan Koum a billionaire overnight, with a projected net worth of $6.8 billion.
WhatsApp co-founder, Jan Koum, 37, was born in Ukraine. He arrived in the U.S. when he was just 16 years old and his family struggled. They lived on food stamps, venture capitalist Jim Goetz revealed in a blog post.
In fact, Koum's family picked up their food stamps only a couple of blocks away from WhatsApp's offices in Mountain View, Calif., reports Wired's David Rowan.
Koum is not the only prominent person making headlines who has relied on SNAP at some point in their life. On the February 17 edition of MSNBC's NOW, host Alex Wagner profiled Olympic speed skater Emily Scott. In June 2013, Scott, who had been working at a medical supply company while training 8 hours per day in preparation for Sochi, was forced to apply for food stamps when her monthly Olympic stipend was cut to just $600. As Wagner noted, Scott is the second ranked American speed skater and will compete in the speed skating quarterfinals on February 21.
The success of these two individuals -- one now a billionaire and the other competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- helps dispel common myths about food stamp recipients.
In recent years, right-wing media have rushed to demonize food stamp recipients, often portraying them as lazy, dependent, or unwilling to work. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has even gone so far as to suggest that children facing hunger should dumpster dive as an alternative to government assistance.
This distorted depiction of the program's beneficiaries culminated in a wildly misleading Fox News report on Jason Greenslate, "a California surfer and aspiring musician." In the report, Fox described Greenslate as "the new face of food stamps," a blatant attempt to portray his lifestyle as characteristic of all food stamp recipients.
Of course, right-wing media's view of those that rely on food stamps is out of touch with reality -- most food stamp recipients stay on the program for short periods of time, 41 percent of them live in a house with earnings, and a majority of recipients are either children or elderly. Furthermore, the program keeps millions out of poverty every year.
On the heels of the Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp, the Huffington Post profiled a number of prominent people who have had to rely on food stamps, ranging from musician Bruce Springsteen to right-wing media darling Dr. Ben Carson.
Hopefully these SNAP success stories making headlines will push right-wing media to tone down the toxic and inaccurate rhetoric about the program and its recipients.
Image via Hubert Burda Media under a Creative Commons License
Not all elementary school children should get a free lunch.
That's how it appears on Fox News, anyway, which found sympathy for children whose school lunches were confiscated because parents had not added sufficient funds to their school accounts. The network wondered why the school could not give students the meals for free, a stark reversal from its attack on free lunches for low-income students as part of an "entitlement nation."
Fox's The Real Story devoted a segment on January 30 to the plight of elementary school children in Salt Lake City who saw their school lunches confiscated and thrown away, due to outstanding balances on their school lunch accounts. Host Gretchen Carlson expressed disbelief that "this really happened," wondering "what would the harm have been" in giving to the children the lunch for free "because they were going in the trash anyway."
Fox News seized on Colorado's legalization of recreational use and sale of marijuana to stoke fears -- while offering no evidence -- that low-income Americans could use food stamps to buy marijuana. In fact, food stamp recipients are barred from purchasing non-food items, cannot withdraw food stamps as cash, and fraud in the program is extremely rare.
After a Colorado law allowing the legal sale of marijuana went into effect in 2014, an urban myth spread that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) recipients could use electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to withdraw SNAP benefits as cash at ATMs located in marijuana dispensaries in order to buy marijuana. Colorado senate Republicans introduced a bill to ban the use of EBT cards at those ATMs, but the bill failed after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about restricting recipients' access to benefits in areas with few ATMs.
Despite lack of evidence and the failure of the bill, Fox News continued perpetuating the myth that SNAP recipients can use benefits to buy marijuana. The January 21 edition of Fox & Friends included on-screen text that read, "Food stamps for pot!" Another line of text claimed that the bill would "ban food stamps at pot shops."
Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade introduced the segment by asking, "Can people collecting food stamps in Colorado add marijuana to their shopping lists?" and answering,"Right now the answer is yes."
Right-wing media have spent the last few years baselessly dismissing the decades-long push to alleviate poverty as not worth the fight, despite evidence showing that government efforts to reduce poverty have been successful.
On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to enumerate proposals that would come to be known as the War on Poverty. Many of the proposals and policy prescriptions outlined in the president's speech were eventually signed into law.
Recent research from the Columbia Population Research Center at Columbia University reveals the extent to which anti-poverty programs since the 1960s have alleviated poverty for millions of Americans. The study, titled "Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure," uses a uniform measure of poverty (supplemental poverty measure or SPM) to show a dramatic drop-off in poverty rates from 1967 to 2011. From the study (emphasis added):
The OPM shows the overall poverty rates to be nearly the same in 1967 and 2011 -- at 14% and 15% respectively. But our counterfactual estimates using the anchored SPM show that without taxes and other government programs, poverty would have been roughly flat at 27-29%, while with government benefits poverty has fallen from 26% to 16% -- a 40% reduction. Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%) while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about one percentage point.
Today, despite mounting evidence of their success, the corresponding anti-poverty programs created during the War on Poverty face incessant and withering criticism from conservative politicians and their right-wing media allies. Conservative media voices regularly repeat the claim that anti-poverty programs are useless, or that after 50 years they are no longer working. In fact, as recently as January 7, Fox News host Martha MacCallum cast doubt on whether or not lowering the poverty rate over the past five decades was worth the effort, but the following graph from The New York Times' Economix blog shows just how effective these programs have been:
Source: The New York Times, Economix Blog, "The War On Poverty at 50"
In addition to questioning the general efficacy of anti-poverty relief efforts, right-wing media voices have targeted specific Johnson-era programs and initiatives like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, expanded food stamps and welfare, and an increased minimum wage in their coordinated attempt to undermine the social safety net, effectively stymying the purpose of the War on Poverty.
The past 12 months witnessed innumerable attacks on social safety net programs in the United States. These attacks on American social insurance programs were hardly limited to Social Security -- all forms of social insurance, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability, came under fire from mainstream and conservative media alike, regardless of the programs' social or economic benefits. Media Matters compiled a list of the six types of attacks on the social safety net in 2013.
For more than three years, an influential study by two Harvard economists -- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- provided a plausible foundation for attacks on spending of all types. The study fostered debt-paranoia among pundits otherwise interested in austere fiscal policies.
An April study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, however, concluded that the Reinhart-Rogoff data was error-filled in a way that selectively biased the results. A further review of the corrected data by economists at the University of Michigan found that the study should have been deemed inconclusive.
Despite losing its intellectual foundation in April, the deficit reduction talking point maintained a prominent position in fiscal policy discussion throughout the year.
Media calls for deficit reduction in the past year also regularly relied on budget reporting that lacked adequate context that federal budget deficits have declined precipitously from their 2009 peak. A Media Matters review of budget reporting done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post revealed that a sizeable majority of articles provided budget items and program spending figures out of context. Further analysis concluded this misrepresentative reporting to be little more than a scare tactic, which bolstered calls for deeper cuts to the safety net for the sake of alleged fiscal responsibility.
This lack of context in media, and the effect it had in shifting the policy debate, eventually encouraged Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to issue a statement promising to correct problematic reporting standards going forward, but other outlets have yet to follow suit.
Forbes columnist John Tamny's declaration on The Daily Show that food stamps are "cruel" and would be replaced by private charity if people were "literally starving" with "distended bellies" is in keeping with his past remarks on the program -- In his regular role as a Fox panelist, Tamny has lamented that food stamp recipients are not publicly shamed and embarrassed for receiving the benefits.
On the December 17 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Forbes columnist Tamny spoke to correspondent Jessica Williams about the $5 billion recently cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps). Tamny told Williams, "If I were in control, I would abolish SNAP all together. I think food stamps are cruel." He added, "I don't think anyone is happy if they're reliant on someone else, if they're taking a handout."
Tamny argued that if people were "literally starving," a "massive outpouring of charity" would "make up for that fact":
WILLIAMS: What does literally starving look like?
TAMNY: This is going to come off the wrong way, but I guess it's where people have literally distended bellies where they're getting almost nothing. We don't hear about the poor in this country starving on the streets.
He went on to deny that the food stamp program keeps people from starving.
Rush Limbaugh attacked a federal program that keeps children from going hungry, arguing that food stamps are instead the cause of childhood obesity -- but studies find no link between the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP -- also called food stamps) and obesity in children.
On the December 3 edition of his radio show, Limbaugh agreed that a Washington Times op-ed by James Bovard proved the theory that "more food stamps means fatter kids." Limbaugh asserted that minority children were casualties of "Obama's obesity epidemic" because the "Democrat party has made everybody they can think they are victims" by giving them food stamps.
But Limbaugh's claims are false. Bovard's op-ed never asserted that most childhood obesity occurs among minorities and Bovard mislead his readers about obesity studies to craft a false narrative that food stamp use is linked to childhood obesity. Bovard referenced a study by Baruch college professor Diane Gibson titled "Food Stamp Program Participation is Positively Related to Obesity in Low Income Women" which "estimated that participation in the food-stamp program for five years boosted the odds of young girls being overweight by 43 percent." But Gibson pointed out that her research "did not control for food insecurity, and this omission potentially complicates the interpretation of the FSP [Food Stamp Program] participation variables."
Fox News claimed the Obamacare rollout has "clearly" been worse for the American people than the government shutdown, because the shutdown's "biggest inconvenience" was a few closed national parks and memorials -- ignoring the shutdown's cuts to domestic violence centers, women and children's food and health care, stalled scientific research, and severe economic losses.
On the November 11 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy and Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano held a "pop quiz" to determine "[w]hich was more harmful to your personal freedoms," Obamacare or the government shutdown? Both decided that there was no contest: Doocy proclaimed that Obamacare was "clearly" worse than the "slimdown," and Napolitano agreed that it was "[n]ot even a close call." As evidence, Napolitano pointed out that "the biggest inconvenience" of the government shutdown was "a couple hundred well-intended people trying to get into national parks and monuments and the government had closed them." In contrast, he claimed that Obamacare hurts people by forcing them to buy expensive "high end, one-size-fits-all" health insurance policies.
Fox's faulty comparison ignored the significant impacts of the government shutdown, which harmed the economy and slashed funding to necessary programs for low-income Americans.
Because of the shutdown, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program that helps provide health care for at-risk babies and "helps new mothers feed themselves and their babies properly," saw its funding slashed, and states that were unable to lend the program local funds were forced to stop accepting enrollees. The shutdown also cut federal funding to at least 2,000 shelters for victims of domestic abuse, workplace safety inspections were halted, federal workers stopped inspecting toxic waste sites, and the CDC stopped monitoring the spread of the flu. National Geographic further reported that the shutdown caused long-term setbacks in scientific research, and The Washington Post detailed how the shutdown's fallout cost low-income workers their economic stability.
The shutdown also did lasting damage to the U.S. economy. Moody's Analytics estimated that the shutdown "cut real GDP by $20 billion, shaving half a percentage point off growth in the fourth quarter," according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. CRS also noted that "JP Morgan Chase's chief economist was quoted as estimating that the shutdown reduced fourth quarter growth by 0.5 percentage points, with half the reduction attributable to lower government spending and half to 'spillover effects and lost activity' in the rest of the economy." The shutdown also eroded consumer confidence and may have derailed our gradual economic recovery, and economists argue that the shutdown will have lingering effects on the labor market and overall economy for several months.
Napolitano's argument that "5,500,000 innocent Americans were told they don't - they won't have health insurance on January 1st" is also inaccurate. Fox has repeatedly worked to hide the fact that rather than losing coverage outright, most of these consumers are simply being offered new, often better, options because policies will be required to include basic standards of care. Moreover, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, though rocky, has successfully allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to sign up for Medicaid.
The four major network Sunday news programs failed to report on the newly enacted decrease in food stamp benefits, which affects more than 47 million Americans.
On November 1, USDA reported that "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients will see their monthly benefits decrease" after the expiration of benefit increases enacted in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA). But Fox News Sunday, NBC's Meet The Press, ABC's This Week, and CBS' Face the Nation all failed to bring up the issue on the November 3 editions of their respective shows.
Writing at Salon, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explained: "As of November 1 more than 47 million Americans have lost some or all of their food stamp benefits." He added that "Half of all children get food stamps at some point during their childhood." CBS News reported that the SNAP benefit cuts would shrink benefits for a family of four by as much as "$432 over the course of a year." The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) highlighted how SNAP benefit cuts would affect hundreds of thousands of veterans:
Many veterans returning from service face challenges in finding work. While the overall unemployment rate for veterans is lower than the national average, the unemployment rate for recent veterans (serving in September 2001 to the present) remains high, at 10.1 percent in September 2013. About one-quarter of recent veterans reported service-connected disabilities in 2011, which can impact their ability to provide for their families: households with a veteran with a disability that prevents them from working are about twice as likely to lack access to adequate food than households without a disabled member.
Veterans who participate in SNAP tend to be young, but their ages range widely: 57 percent of the veterans in our analysis are under age 30, while 9 percent are aged 60 or older. They served during many conflicts, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, and in some cases, Korea and World War II, as well as in peacetime.
The media continues to ignore food stamp cuts that affect millions of Americans and negatively impact the economy.
From the October 31 edition of MSNBC's PoliticsNation:
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From the October 30 edition of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes:
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Cable and broadcast nightly news programs have remained completely silent on pending automatic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- formerly known as food stamps -- which will have negative impacts on the economy and low-income groups.
Fox Business' Charles Payne questioned the need for fast food workers to rely on federal assistance, absurdly citing aggregate earnings of workers and ignoring the fact that many in the industry earn below subsistent wages.
On the October 25 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co., guest host Charles Payne and Fox contributor Elizabeth MacDonald discussed a recently released audio recording from the advocacy group LowPayIsNotOK.org. In the recording, a long-time McDonald's employee is directed by a "McResources" representative to seek out federal benefit programs to augment her inadequate take-home income. MacDonald cited a statement from McDonald's disavowing the call before Payne launched into a slander-filled tirade against a stereotyped generalization of low-wage, fast food employees:
PAYNE: There is a lot of unfortunate parts of the story. If you want to create a society where these jobs -- $8 jobs go for $15. Then what you're saying to people is like, okay, "don't improve your life. Don't finish high school. Don't go to college. Don't, you know what, have three or four kids out of wedlock. Don't put yourself in a predicament where this is your only option. In fact, keep doing what you're doing, smoke weed all day if you want. Doesn't matter. You'll get rewarded because in this society Mickey D's has got the money. They owe it to you." And I think that's a work mentality.
Payne concluded his screed by referencing the aggregate wages of fast food employees nationwide to support his claim that they don't actually need taxpayer-subsidized assistance programs:
PAYNE: By the way, people should know. They say it's between $3 to $7 billion that fast food workers get in care from the government. In the same time though, these fast food workers make between $41 and $46 billion. So who is subsidizing who?
While Payne is quick to dismiss that workers need these programs, absurdly citing aggregate earnings of fast food workers, facts show that they are indeed essential.
According to a recently released study by economists at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign titled "Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast Food Industry," "annual earnings in the fast food industry are well below the income need for self-sufficiency," and after accounting for limited work hours, the median annual earnings of a fast food worker stands at just $11,056 -- below the federal poverty threshold for an individual. Couple those low earnings with the fact that workers in the industry are twice as likely to be in households with total income below the poverty line, and it becomes clear that reliance on federal programs is necessary.
Indeed, fast food workers are overwhelmingly more reliant on public assistance programs than other segments of the workforce.
Fox News promoted a false attack on a federal program that expands access to free school meals by dismissing child hunger and claiming that the program will harm low-income families. But studies have shown the school meals program helps alleviate the high levels of hunger that exist among low-income children, improves their access to key nutrients, and increases academic performance.
From the October 18 edition of Fox News' The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson:
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