Right-wing media hyped a misleading apples-to-oranges comparison to claim that the U.S. is at a “tipping point” in the “relationship between welfare and work.”
On April 15, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed new statistics showed that “the number of people living on the government dole outnumbered full-time working women.” Fox Business host Stuart Varney then claimed “welfare is replacing work” because in 2012, 46 million people collected Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) and 44 million women worked full time. Varney cited SNAP benefits as “the classic example” of an “explosion in welfare payments outgoing from the government to individuals and a decline in work,” which he attributed to the Obama administration “buying votes.” Meanwhile, Fox displayed this graphic:
Other right-wing media sources highlighted the same supposedly “telling” numbers. CNS News posted a graphic comparing the number of women working full time to total SNAP beneficiaries and the Drudge Report also hyped the connection:
But these numbers can't be compared, as many working women fall into both categories.
In fact, because the majority of recipients are working-class Americans with jobs, senior citizens, or children, an increase in SNAP beneficiaries is an extremely unreliable predictor of the number of full-time workers, let alone evidence of a tipping point before a decline in overall employment. A 2013 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the “overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so” (emphasis original):
The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP -- and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children -- more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.
The number of SNAP households that have earnings while participating in SNAP has been rising for more than a decade, and has more than tripled -- from about 2 million in 2000 to about 6.4 million in 2011. The increase was especially pronounced during the recent deep recession, suggesting that many people have turned to SNAP because of under-employment -- for example, when one wage-earner in a two-parent family lost a job, when a worker's hours were cut, or when a worker turned to a lower-paying job after being laid off.
A separate report from the USDA pointed out that in 2012, “75 percent of all SNAP households, containing 87 percent of all participants, included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled nonelderly person. These households received 82 percent of all SNAP benefits.”
This latest attempt to cast the SNAP program as spurring unemployment ignores current economic reality. SNAP enrollment has risen as a result of the economic downturn. The Economic Policy Institute noted that “SNAP swelled because the economy entered the worst recession since the Great Depression and remains severely depressed even 18 months after the official recovery began.” According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Budget Office, SNAP enrollment is projected to decline as the economy recovers:
The number of people receiving SNAP benefits will begin to slowly decline at the end of fiscal year 2014, CBO expects, reflecting an improved economic situation and a declining unemployment rate. Nevertheless, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits will remain high by historical standards, CBO estimates. That is partly because of a growing U.S. population and thus a greater number of potential SNAP participants.