FOX News host Bill O'Reilly falsely claimed that “housing assistance is up 1,400 percent” from former President Clinton's final budget to President Bush's recent 2006 budget proposal. In fact, the increase is a more modest 22 percent. O'Reilly also insisted that “there's been an 82 percent increase in federal spending on food and nutrition assistance” over the same period. The actual figure is 67 percent, but even this figure is misleading; the federal government's main food assistance programs are mandatory entitlement programs, which means that spending is not subject to the annual appropriations process in which the White House and Congress decide how much to devote to discretionary programs. Rather, spending on food stamps automatically increases as more Americans become eligible. The large increase in spending on food stamps since Bush took office is primarily the result of an increase in the number of Americans poor enough to be eligible for the program.
On the February 16 edition of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, in a discussion with Kathleen Barr, policy advocate for the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, O'Reilly cited the bogus stats to defend Bush from the charge that he is not doing enough to address hunger and homelessness. Barr expressed doubt about O'Reilly's figures, but he insisted they were accurate:
O'REILLY: Do you know that housing assistance is up 1,400 percent from Clinton to Bush in 2006? 1,400 percent! I don't think that the folks in America, with all due respect, Ms. Barr, can give any more money. I think this is about it. This is tapped out.
BARR: That's an interesting point, Bill. I'm not quite sure where those numbers are from, but --
O'REILLY: Well, here's -- the numbers are from the government's proposed budget welfare -- this is from the government's own budget right here. These are hard numbers.
According to the White House's own Office of Management and Budget (OMB), federal outlays for housing assistance were $30.1 billion (Excel document) in fiscal year 2001, the last budget enacted under Clinton. Bush's proposed FY 2006 budget proposes to spend $38.4 billion, a 22 percent increase in nominal dollars.
Barr answered O'Reilly's “hard numbers” by citing a roughly accurate statistic on the 30-year decline in the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. O'Reilly insisted, “it's not true.” He was wrong:
BARR: Well, I do know -- what I do know is that the budget authority for the Department of Housing and Urban Development is 60 percent less than it was 30 years ago, showing a clear disinvestment in affordable housing.
O'REILLY: No, it -- on raw dollars, that's not true. Maybe it's part of the gross national product you're quoting. It's not raw dollars. These are record raw dollars, Ms. Barr, in every category through the roof under President Bush. And that's just a fact.
In fact, HUD's budget in 1976 (Excel document), the earliest year available from OMB, was $29.2 billion. In current dollars, that equals $66.9 billion. But Bush's 2006 budget proposes to spend only $30.4 billion. That's a 55 percent decline in real value. O'Reilly's reference to “raw dollars” is meaningless, since inflation has eroded the purchasing power that HUD's budget wielded in 1976.
Earlier in the discussion, O'Reilly derided the “poverty industry in this country” and used a misleading statistic on food assistance to defend Bush from the charge that he has failed to confront hunger in America:
O'REILLY: All right, but remember, there's a poverty industry in this country. And they're all going to say they need more money. ... Now, from 2000, the year 2000, when Bill Clinton was in office, to the proposed budget of 2006, there's been an 82 percent increase in federal spending on food and nutrition assistance. Did you know that? 82 percent. President Bush is the biggest-spending Republican president in history. Do you think that's not enough?
BARR: Well, what I do know is that the 2006 budget proposed last week called for a $1 billion cut in the food stamp program, which would cut over a quarter of a million families off of the food stamp program.
O'REILLY: OK. Well, here's my stat. I got -- this is food stamps, school lunches, women, infants assistance in food. 2006 proposed budget: $51 billion, up from $28 billion under Clinton's last year in office. Madam, that is a staggering, staggering increase.
As noted above, Clinton's final budget before leaving office was the FY 2001 budget, not 2000, as O'Reilly suggested. Outlays for food and nutrition assistance in 2001 totaled $34.1 billion (Excel document), according to OMB. Bush's 2006 budget proposes $56.9 billion, a 67 percent increase. But this increase is not the result of a decision by the White House or Congress. Food stamps and school meals -- which account for $50.4 billion of the $56.9 billion proposed for food programs in 2006 -- are mandatory programs. That means spending rises automatically as more Americans become eligible, unless Congress specifically enacts changes to the program.
In fact, eligibility for food stamps has increased. Some 25.1 million Americans received food stamps in November 2004, the latest month for which data is available from the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. By contrast, average monthly participation for FY 2001 was 17.3 million; that's an increase of 45 percent. A likely explanation for this increase is that only about 31.1 million Americans lived in poverty in 2000 compared to 35.9 million in 2003, the latest year for which the Census Bureau has released data. Indeed, the program's website notes that "[p]articipation generally peaks in periods of high unemployment, inflation and recession."
Barr's reference to Bush's plan to cut food stamps was accurate. Bush's 2006 budget included a proposal to cut spending on food stamps by $1.1 billion over ten years by limiting eligibility [see p. 177; PDF p. 181].
Near the end of the segment, O'Reilly suggested that the increase in hunger detailed in a recent survey by Barr's organization was the fault of poor people themselves:
O'REILLY: But how much more money can the U.S. taxpayer -- I mean, I'm just giving you the stats. Every category of assistance to the poor under President Bush has gone up incredibly. How much more money do we have to put in there? I just -- if you're spending $50 billion on assistance, food stamps and school lunches, that is enormous. There's only 300 billion [sic] people in the country.
BARR: Well, I can't speculate on exactly how much we would need eventually. What I can speculate on is that our study found that there are people out there who aren't receiving food assistance, who aren't able to find shelter.
O'REILLY: Well, I wonder whose fault that is, because the taxpayer is certainly paying enough money.