Bullied Into Silence: The Media's Poor Record On Anti-Poverty Measures

New evidence that food stamps help to drastically reduce poverty has been largely ignored by the media, even as the right pursues a campaign to bully those who face food insecurity into silence and help conservatives slash funding for successful antipoverty measures.

In a report released April 9, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that food stamps “reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009.” That year, USDA researchers concluded, food stamps reduced the depth of child poverty by 20.9 percent.

As MSNBC's Al Sharpton explained, “facts matter” in the debate over anti-poverty programs. But a Media Matters analysis shows that major broadcast news outlets completely ignored the study, even as Republicans demonize food stamps and push to slash funding for the program.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the Republican budget plan introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan and endorsed by Mitt Romney would cut funding for food stamps by $134 billion over 10 years. As the USDA estimates show, those cuts could have a significant impact on poverty rates.

Food insecurity has a damaging effect on students, as caloric intake declines as monthly benefits run out and disciplinary problems in schools increase. After-school snack programs have been shown to ameliorate the behavioral issues:

The most plausible explanations for students' inability to adhere to proper school behavior include hunger caused by reduced consumption of calories and/or increase in household stress due to exhausting all forms of liquid assets.

While food stamps were helping to drive down poverty rates during the deepest recession in decades, the right-wing echo chamber was chastising those struggling with food insecurity. In May 2011, Fox Business Network's Charles Payne castigated the poor for not being sufficiently ashamed of their poverty:

There's no doubt that these are good programs. I think the real narrative here, though, is that people aren't embarrassed by it. People aren't ashamed by it.

The campaign to shame recipients into silence skews the debate. An April 7 New York Times article reported on the struggles millions of families have faced since access to welfare benefits were severely restricted in 1996, noting the “surprising openness” families used to talk about their struggles. That willingness to talk about experience with anti-poverty programs is the exception, not the rule.

And efforts to shame those struggling with food insecurity into silence continue. During a recent Fox News appearance, talk radio host Chris Plante complained, “We've got more people on welfare, more people on food stamps, more people on government assistance than ever before ... and, quite honestly, the president is encouraging this.”

Plante's comments are typical from Fox, suggesting that President Obama is using food stamps to buy votes. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began taking steps to “ensure that all eligible people, particularly seniors, legal immigrants and the working poor, are aware of and have access to the benefits they need and deserve” long before Obama took office.

By bullying into silence those who would talk openly about their experiences with successful anti-poverty programs -- and whitewashing studies proving these programs to be effective -- the media create an environment conducive to eviscerating the safety net.