Another day, another dishonest Fox News chart. This time Fox is twisting the data to support Newt Gingrich's claim that President Obama is the “food stamp president” because “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.”
On today's edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, Mike Huckabee agreed, saying that “what Newt says remains factual: more people have gotten on food stamps under Barack Obama as he's president than ever before. So it's true.” Guest host Eric Bolling agreed, adding that “under Obama the program has increased by 45 percent in three years.” During the segment, Fox amplified the point with the following chart:
This chart adds to Fox News' record of using misleading charts to deceive their viewers. It features mismatched data that does not answer the question of whether “more people have gotten on food stamps” under Obama than any under other president (spoiler alert: they haven't).
The data for Presidents Richard Nixon through George W. Bush comes from this table of average food stamp participation by fiscal year, but the reason each specific fiscal year's data was selected for each president is a mystery. It appears that Fox's intention was to select the year of each presidency with the highest participation. However, the fact that the data is compiled by fiscal year seems to have caused their employees some confusion, which we will detail below. Moreover, the chart does not compare those fiscal year averages to a comparable figure, the average number of beneficiaries in a fiscal year of the Obama presidency. Instead, the 46.2 million figure Fox labels “Obama (2012)” refers to the number of beneficiaries in October 2011, the first month of fiscal year 2012 and the most recent month in which data is available.
Fox's data does not show how many people were added to the rolls under the tenures of the various presidents, which would indicate whether Gingrich, Huckabee, and Bolling are correct in stating that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” Instead, the data appears to attempt to answer the question of whether more people are currently enrolled in food stamps than were enrolled under any other president. FactCheck.org, by contrast, created a chart aimed at determining whether the “food stamp president” claim is accurate, based on month-to-month figures rather than the more confusing fiscal year data. Their chart shows that more recipients were added to the rolls under George W. Bush's tenure than under Obama's:
But Gingrich goes too far to say Obama has put more on the rolls than other presidents. We asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition service for month-by-month figures going back to January 2001. And they show that under President George W. Bush the number of recipients rose by nearly 14.7 million. Nothing before comes close to that.
And under Obama, the increase so far has been 14.2 million. To be exact, the program has so far grown by 444,574 fewer recipients during Obama's time in office than during Bush's.
It's possible that when the figures for January 2012 are available they will show that the gain under Obama has matched or exceeded the gain under Bush. But not if the short-term trend continues. The number getting food stamps declined by 43,528 in October. And the economy has improved since then.
A look at the data further reveals that Obama's tenure also has not seen the largest increase in food stamp participants by percentage. CBS News noted that the increase in food stamps enrollment “hardly makes Obama the 'best food stamp president in American history,' ” pointing out that the “percent increase in beneficiaries during Mr. [George W.] Bush's presidency was higher than it has been under Mr. Obama.”
In addition to answering the wrong question, Fox selects data on an inconsistent and frankly confusing basis. The figures selected show that the network either did not apply a consistent standard as to whether or not fiscal years that feature a change of president are counted for the outgoing president, or were not seeking to provide the year of each presidency featuring the highest number of food stamp beneficiaries.
Fox uses fiscal year 1993's figure of 27 million beneficiaries for George H.W. Bush; that period ran from October 1, 1992 through September 30, 1993, largely covering a period in which Bill Clinton was president. This suggests that Fox is including any fiscal year in which a president served at all as qualifying for inclusion.
Under that standard, Fox should have used fiscal year 2009 for George W. Bush, when the food stamps program had 33.5 million beneficiaries. That would have created a substantially smaller gap between that bar and Obama's.
Note that by featuring the peak food stamp enrollments of the Clinton and first Bush presidencies, the chart wipes out how participation plummeted from fiscal year 1994 through the end of Clinton's second term, and subsequently rose dramatically under the second Bush presidency.
Whichever standard Fox is using, Reagan's figure of 21.6 million in fiscal year 1983 is not the highest of his presidency.
Of course, both the chart and the Fox segment ignore the reason so many Americans are currently on food stamps: the economic downturn that began during the George W. Bush administration. That isn't data we'll see on Fox any time soon.