From the February 12 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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Early news coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign has tacitly allowed the GOP to disingenuously rebrand itself as a party of the middle class, despite the fact that the party's new rhetoric doesn't align with its policy positions that continue to exacerbate income inequality. When highlighting Republican rhetoric about the need to reduce income inequality, media should take care to hold the GOP accountable for its actions, not just its words.
Recent Gallup polling shows "two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S.," and Republicans have taken note. Prospective GOP presidential candidates have suddenly started talking about income inequality ahead of the 2016 elections, apparently heeding advice from the Republican National Committee's (RNC) post-mortem of the 2012 election, which warned that the GOP had been "increasingly marginalizing itself" and urged the party to improve its optics by recognizing the fact "that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty."
During the January 25 Koch brothers-sponsored Freedom Partners Forum, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (TX), Rand Paul (KY), and Marco Rubio (FL) each took the opportunity to bemoan income inequality and blame the Obama administration for a growing income gap. Mitt Romney claimed that "income inequality had worsened" during President Obama's time in office in a January 28 speech at Mississippi State University, while Jeb Bush's "Right to Rise" PAC has declared that "the income gap is real."
The Washington Post, Politico, USA Today, and Bloomberg Politics each reported on the 2016 hopefuls' Freedom Partners comments, highlighting the senators' statements lamenting income inequality and focusing on "issues such as the minimum wage ... [and] tax reform." The Wall Street Journal featured Republican policy proposals "aimed at boosting the middle class," and applauded Bush, Romney, Rubio, and Paul for "promoting or seeking ideas for shoring up the middle class." The Post's Post Politics blog and NBCNews.com's "First Read" emphasized Romney's recent focus on income inequality and poverty, pointing to speeches at the RNC and Mississippi State University.
These media outlets acknowledged the fact that Republicans are changing their rhetoric on inequality -- but it's actions and policies that count, not just rhetoric. Media cannot take GOP candidates at their word when their policies continue to exacerbate inequality and burden the middle and lower class.
Cruz, Paul, and Rubio all oppose recent calls to raise the minimum wage. At a January 25 private donor event, each of these senators argued that raising the minimum wage would eliminate jobs. Cruz claimed "the minimum wage consistently hurts the most vulnerable," while Rubio called focus on raising the minimum wage "a waste of time." During the same event, none of the senators "said they could stomach any tax increases," and Rubio called the ACA a "perfect example" of "cronyism," blaming health reform for halting job creation. Just this month, Cruz introduced a bill to repeal the health care law, while Paul echoed calls to repeal and suggested instead to "try freedom for a while." Such positions are consistent with the GOP's historic stances on these issues. As MSNBC's Steve Benen noted, supposed Republican attempts to address income inequality, "in practice, ... apparently mean endorsing an agenda that cuts off unemployment benefits, slashes food stamps, cuts funding for public services, eliminates health care benefits, and rejects minimum wage increases."
Economists have often noted that wage stagnation has a profound impact on aggravating income inequality, and as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has pointed out, raising the federal minimum wage just to $10.10 per hour by 2016 would "raise the wages of 27.8 million workers." The Congressional Budget Office has also reported on the "ripple effect" of raising the minimum wage, saying it would benefit 16.5 million workers and lift nearly one million people out of poverty. And according to a Center For American Progress report, a $10.10 minimum wage would cut food stamp participation and taxpayer expenditures by $4.6 billion annually. Support for anti-poverty government programs -- like SNAP, unemployment benefits, school lunch programs, and the like -- cut the country's poverty rate "nearly in half," according to research from the Institute for Research on Poverty.
Rather than alleviating income inequality, lawmakers have worsened inequality by consistently cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans, according to a 2013 EPI study. Economist Larry Summers has emphasized the importance of "closing [tax] loopholes that only the wealthy can enjoy," noting that would "enable targeted tax measures such as the earned-income tax credit to raise the incomes of the poor and middle class more than dollar for dollar by incentivizing working and saving."
And despite countless Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health care law will reduce income inequality, boost the incomes of lower and middle-class Americans, and extend coverage to 15.1 million uninsured adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Media acknowledging the GOP's new talking points and mottos is one thing. But given the 2016 hopefuls' apparent commitment to policies that stand in contrast to their rhetoric on income inequality, media should make sure and hold these Republicans accountable for their actions, not just their words.
Fox News pushed three food stamp myths in under five minutes, while hyping new statistics showing that 46.5 million Americans now receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) -- or food stamp -- benefits. Fox ignored the fact that raising the minimum wage would reduce the number of SNAP recipients, that experts agree marriage would not solve problems of poverty, that increasing numbers of college students are food insecure and need this government aid, and that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for SNAP benefits.
Right-wing media figures misleadingly attacked and dismissed the need for paid parental leave after President Obama's State of the Union speech advocated for expanding these programs to more Americans. In fact, economists have found that increasing paid leave would boost the economy, increase wages, and keep families out of poverty.
Fox's Bill O'Reilly downplayed the impact of raising the minimum wage, claiming only an"infinitesimal" number of people would be impacted, and ignoring the 27.8 million Americans that would benefit from a raise in the minimum wage.
During the January 20 State of the Union address, President Obama urged members of Congress to raise the minimum wage, saying those "who still refuse to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest working people in America a raise."
On the January 21 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly and network contributor Eric Shawn undermined President Obama's minimum wage initiative, and diminished the number of Americans that would be impacted by raising the minimum wage. O'Reilly asserted that only "a very low number" of people make "minimum wage anyways," claiming that the number of people who would be impacted by the change would be "infinitesimal" and saying Obama has been "misleading everybody" by insisting a raise would have a big effect:
But according to the Economic Policy Institute, raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016 would "raise the wages of 27.8 million workers, who would receive about $35 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period."
Coverage of the economy on weeknight television news shows during the last six months of 2014 continued to focus heavily on policies meant to boost job creation and economic growth, but discussions overwhelmingly lacked input from actual economists. Additionally, a Media Matters analysis uncovered a relative decline in the number of segments promoting the conservative media myths that Obamacare and increasing the minimum wage hurt the labor market.
From the January 13 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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Thousands of low-income Detroit residents denied access to water over delinquent bills did not find much sympathy from the hosts of Fox & Friends, who argued, "If you're not paying for water, why should you get it?"
The city of Detroit has shut off water service to more than 27,000 households this year, an effort to address the water department's more than $5 billion in debt in a city where over 50 percent of residents are delinquent on their water bill.
An estimated 2,300 homes are still without water, despite the fact that the city has established a payment plan for some who are unable to afford their water bill. The city says that 33,000 customers are currently enrolled. According to U.N. human rights officials who made an informal visit to Detroit, the water disconnection constitutes a human rights violation.
But to the hosts of Fox & Friends, the water shutoffs were more justified. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt said that it is "devastating" that several thousand Detroit families don't have water and that she's sorry they can't afford to pay their bills, but declared:
EARHARDT: Why is that any different than any other bill that we have to pay? You don't pay your car payment, you don't pay your house payment, you lose your car. You lose your house. If you're not paying for water, why should you get it?
The hosts condemned the U.N. officials' determination that the water shutoffs constituted a human rights violation, claiming the U.N. was making "a deliberate attempt to embarrass the United States."
Fox's indignation didn't extend to the commercial and industrial businesses similarly behind on their water bills -- as of July, the city had not reported which delinquent businesses had seen their service disconnected. According to recent reports, the Detroit Red Wings' hockey arena and the Detroit Lions' stadium owe tens of thousands in unpaid water bills but still have service.
Detroit's water shutoffs take the greatest toll on low-income residents, a significant number of people given that nearly 40 percent of the city lives below the poverty line. People are often forced to choose between paying for rent, electricity, or water, and the water department has recently increased the price of service by almost 10 percent. Beyond water being a basic necessity for life, the lack of access has other repercussions -- it could be grounds for child protective services to remove children from their homes.
Fox News hyped a Watchdog.org study purporting to show Colorado recipients of government assistance programs accessed the government funds from exotic, out-of-state locations, suggesting the recipients were on lavish vacations. But Fox's report failed to mention that the study found only two percent of withdrawals were made outside of Colorado.
An October 6 Watchdog.org report found that $3.8 million was withdrawn by Colorado recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), commonly referred to as "welfare," outside the state in the past two years. The study cited some of the more "exotic" places where these withdrawals had occurred, such as Las Vegas, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands.
Fox hyped the study on the October 8 edition of Fox and Friends. Co-host Elizabeth Hasselbeck interviewed Colorado State Representative Tim Dore (R) about the report, asking him how he plans to "specifically stop this spending of hard-earned tax dollars on vacation spots and strip clubs?"
Later, Special Report host Bret Baier covered the study claiming "your tax dollars are helping welfare recipients enjoy vacations at some very exotic destinations."
But Fox's coverage failed to note that Watchdog.org's study found that out-of-state withdrawals represented just 2 percent of Colorado program recipients' ATM withdrawals, and only 1.7 percent of withdrawals outside states bordering Colorado. The purported abuse is even more absurd for the specific destinations Fox highlighted: the $6,451 withdrawn in Hawaii, for example, represents 0.003 percent of the $170 million total.
Fox has a history of hyping misleading stories to demonize government assistance. Last month, Fox & Friends falsely claimed that TANF money in Colorado was being used to buy marijuana, leading to the passage of two pieces of legislation in the United States House of Representatives.
From the September 19 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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Conservative media's lengthy campaign to demonize government programs by accusing low-income Americans of using benefits to buy marijuana has culminated in legislation being passed by Republicans in the House of Representatives this week.
Two bills linking government assistance for impoverished families to the legal purchase of marijuana are making their way through the Republican-controlled House. The Preserving Welfare For Needs Not Weed Act, proposed by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and passed by the House yesterday, aims to prohibit the use of electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards containing cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in stores selling marijuana (At this time, only two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the sale of the drug for recreational use). A second bill, the No Welfare For Weed Act, introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), extends even further -- it aims to ban the purchase of marijuana with SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.
These bills come on the heels of a concerted effort by Fox News and conservative blogs like National Review Online (NRO) to accuse low-income Americans of using government assistance to purchase recreational marijuana. One month after Colorado legalized the sale of pot, NRO alleged "welfare beneficiaries withdrew thousands of dollars in public-assistance cash from ATMs at weed shops" in the state, a report echoed by Fox & Friends co-host Eric Bolling, who asked, "Are food stamps now going to pot?":
BOLLING: Forty-seven million people are on food stamps nationwide. In Colorado, more than 500,000 are getting food stamps every month. Meanwhile, 348 shops are set up in Colorado to sell pot in the state. And food stamp cards have reportedly been used at pot shops, ATMs, at least 64 times in the short time weed has been legal in Colorado. So are food stamps now going to pot?
In 64 specific times, people used an EBT card to take out cash, presumably to buy pot.
Conservative media's accusation that impoverished families use food stamps and government benefits to buy marijuana, one they've continued to push for months, was echoed by House Republicans justifying their current proposals.
Presenting his bill on September 16, Reichert declared, "We are seeing new abuses of these benefits. In these states, a person can walk into one of the newly opened pot shops and use their welfare benefit card to pay for pot ... This isn't an idle concern. Report examining welfare transactions in Colorado revealed over $5,000 in welfare benefits were accessed in stores selling marijuana in the first month such stores were open."
The link between TANF benefits and pot purchases has yet to be established. In NRO's original report, the blog admitted it could not conclude that any TANF money has been used specifically for the purchase of marijuana, stating, "Some of these establishments sell groceries as well as pot, so there is no way to know exactly how much welfare money was spent on marijuana."
Notably, despite the House bill suggesting otherwise, food stamp recipients are only allowed to use benefits to purchase approved food items and are barred from purchasing alcohol, tobacco, and non-food items. The USDA makes clear that SNAP benefits can't be used to withdraw cash from ATMs (emphasis original):
SNAP benefits can never be withdrawn as cash. Many States allow clients to use a single EBT card to access SNAP as well as cash benefit programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In most States, cash benefits from other programs can be accessed through ATMs.
On-air graphics displayed during Fox News hyped the number of poor Americans that have access to basic necessities like internet access and air conditioning in order to downplay the seriousness of poverty and attack efforts to address it through government programs.
A September 16 segment on Fox's The Five criticized the war on poverty claiming that 50 years later, more Americans are in poverty today than when President Lyndon B. Johnson first began implementing social programs to lift Americans out of poverty. During the segment, the show displayed chyrons that said "The Typical Family That The Census Identifies As 'Poor' Has AC, Cable TV, And A Computer," while another reported that "40% Of Poor Have A Wide-Screen HDTV And Internet Access." From the show:
Fox News' chyrons parrot a report by the Heritage Foundation claiming "that the actual living conditions of the more than 45 million people deemed 'poor' by the Census Bureau differ greatly from popular conceptions of poverty" because many of the poor have "consumer items that were luxuries or significant purchases for the middle class a few decades ago."
The amenities Fox News bemoans are necessary for survival. In 2011 access to internet was deemed a "human right" by the United Nations. And the Center for American Progress further explained that the services and appliances the Heritage Foundation cites are "everyday necessities" and that using them to measure poverty is "misleading":
These arguments are mean and misleading on several accounts. First, the electronic devices that Heritage cites are everyday necessities today. Who has iceboxes anymore? Who doesn't need a cell phone to find a job or keep one? Fortunately, these appliances are all significantly cheaper these days, but not so the real everyday basics such as quality child care and out-of-pocket medical costs, both of which have risen much faster than inflation, squeezing the budgets of the poor and middle-class alike. In fact, if anything, those who we consider poor today are far more out of the social mainstream in terms of their basic income than when our poverty measure was first set in the 1960s.
To avoid a real discussion of these issues, the Heritage Foundation craftily creates indexes that rank households on skewed measures of "amenities" that suggest that no further federal action is needed to buoy the standard of living of poor and working-class families. Such indexes are heartless and foolish. Heartless because they ignore the fact that it takes much more than a few appliances to support a family. And foolish because they lend credence to the calls for cutting the supports that research has shown are necessary for every child to become a healthy and productive adult.
In fact, poverty is a serious problem for those Americans without access to medical care, education, stable housing, access to legal services and healthy food.
Experts find that government programs actually help to alleviate "vast amounts of poverty" in the US. Forbes found that "When we measure all those goods and things the child poverty rate is 1 or 2%." The Washington Post reported that "when you take government intervention into account, poverty is down considerably from 1967 to 2012, from 26 percent to 16 percent."
A Wall Street Journal op-ed downplayed the seriousness of food insecurity in the United States, claiming that government research on the topic "isn't about hunger" and dismissing the millions of Americans who faced uncertain access to food last year.
On September 2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its annual report on household food security in the United States, finding that 17.5 million households in the country were food insecure in 2013, meaning that they had "limited or uncertain" access to "nutritionally adequate and safe food."
In response to the USDA report, The Wall Street Journal published a September 3 opinion piece by James Bovard attacking government focus on food insecurity as a measurement of widespread hunger in the United States. Bovard suggested thatmembers of food-insecure households are not legitimately hungry because "widespread hunger" has been "debunked" by another USDA report that found children in low-income households consume more calories on average than those in higher-income households. Bovard cited the higher consumption of calories by children in low-income households as evidence of a "paradoxical relationship between food stamps and food insecurity" and demanded more transparency on what food stamp benefits are being spent on.
But by denying the legitimacy of measuring food insecurity, Bovard erased food insecurity's pervasive impact across the United States. Although hunger and food insecurity are in fact separate issues, as Bovard pointed out, the USDA underscores that they are still "related." According to the USDA, "Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food, while hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity." The USDA began to distinguish between food insecurity and hunger in the department's research due to a "lack of consistent meaning of the word" hunger.
Citing higher calorie consumption among children in low-income households as evidence that debunks child hunger is also misleading. As the Food Research and Action Center points out, food insecure and low-income people are especially vulnerable to obesity, due to "[l]imited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods," which are primary factors in those living in poverty consuming higher-calorie foods. The center says that healthy food is often more expensive and less available than energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods.
From the August 28 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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Fox News turned to misleading statistics and sensational rhetoric in a renewed attack on government anti-poverty relief programs, federal workers, and public pensions.
On the August 21 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, co-host Jon Scott invited Fox Business contributor Charles Gasparino to discuss concerns regarding the scope and sustainability of government benefit programs. The two falsely portrayed government employment as a "growth industry" and made a confusing comparison between the total number of Americans receiving so-called "welfare" and the population of Russia. Gasparino lamented that more "stigma" is not attached to receiving federal aid or "living in a housing project," before falsely concluding that public pensions face a "huge looming crisis" and are, in essence, "Ponzi schemes":
GASPARINO: I don't think Americans are against handing people a check if they really need it, if they're starving, if they need welfare, if they need a helping hand. But we have a cultural situation in this country where it is more than that, where it is almost acceptable. The stigma is gone about accepting that check.
GASPARINO: We've become the old Soviet Union! If you threw in the state numbers, it would even be bigger. The pension issue that I brought up is one of the huge looming crisis out there. It's essentially a Ponzi scheme.
Scott's initial claim that "nearly 110 million Americans live in households on welfare," is misleading. According to the United States Census Bureau, in the fourth quarter of 2012 roughly 109.6 million Americans resided in a household receiving "one or more means-tested programs." These include housing assistance, disability and survivor benefits, numerous nutritional assistance programs, Medicaid, and forms of "cash assistance." Only 5.4 million individuals lived in homes receiving from the benefit program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly referred to as "welfare."
The portrayal of government employment as a "growth industry" is also false. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, total government employment across local, state, and federal agencies has declined significantly during the Obama administration and over the past seven years. Total government employment was roughly 22.6 million when President Obama took office in 2009, declining to 21.9 million today:
Gasparino's final claim that public employee pensions are "a Ponzi scheme," is incorrect. A February 2011 report by economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) demonstrated that most of the long-term funding shortfall in public pensions is a result of the 2007-2009 economic crisis and the accompanying stock market downturn. Baker concluded that the debate on pensions had been "seriously misrepresented" and that most public pensions appeared "easily manageable" over the long term.
Fox News and Gasparino have a long history of misappropriating terms like "welfare" and relying on sensational comparisons of pensions to "Ponzi schemes," in addition to unsubstantiated correlations between the number of recipients of a government program with completely unrelated population statistics.