Fox News “Reports” on SNAP: Binging, Losers, And “Too Much Food”

Roughly 45 minutes into Fox News' “special” investigation into the Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps,” per the outdated parlance), host Bret Baier posed a question that gets right to the heart of what Fox News specifically, and conservatives generally, are trying to accomplish with regard to public attitudes toward social welfare programs. “Shouldn't there be at least some stigma?” Baier asked, referring to people who accept SNAP benefits. Baier's just-asking-questions lament about the lack of stigmatization was all part of Fox News' slipshod and flagrant piece of agitprop intended to shame the needy and promote public resentment of the government safety net.

Everything about Baier's special, “The Great Food Stamp Binge” -- from the title to its absurd focus on a thoroughly unlikable miscreant named Jason Greenslate who proudly abuses SNAP benefits -- was designed to provoke hostility to the idea of nutritional assistance programs. Greenslate, a California musician who refuses to work and spends his monthly SNAP benefits on sushi and lobsters, is an anomaly in a program that has proven to be both efficient and effective. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “fewer than 2 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program's eligibility requirements.” The USDA estimates that just one cent of every dollar of SNAP benefits is lost to “trafficking,” a type of fraud. “About three out of four SNAP households included a child, a person age 60 or older, or a disabled person,” per the Congressional Budget Office.

Greenslate, who is in no way representative of the typical SNAP recipient, was the subject of two separate segments, totaling nearly nine minutes, of Fox News' hour-long special. Baier proclaimed him “the new face of food stamps.” 

Greenslate is “the new face of food stamps” for no other reason than Fox News wants him to be. Baier offered no data to back up this assertion, and no fact-driven justification for even including Greenslate in the report. But this freeloading oaf is an easy-to-hate villain, someone the viewer can immediately dislike and a convenient punching bag for small-government agitators. Near the program's close, Fox News reporter John Roberts, interviewing Greenslate, attempted to shame him -- and every other recipient of SNAP benefits. “It used to be that, you know, that if somebody was on food stamps it's like 'hey, they're on food stamps, you know... loser,'” said Roberts.

It should also be pointed out that Greenslate's monthly benefit is $200, meaning that he is responsible for, at most, $2,400 of waste per year. The government spent $78 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2011. That means Fox News spent almost 9 minutes investigating and exposing SNAP waste that totals (roughly) 0.000003 percent of the total SNAP budget.

You expect this sort of nonsense from Fox News' stable of determinedly ignorant pundits and opinion hosts, but Baier is a journalist. He's the anchor of Fox News' flagship news show. With “The Great Food Stamp Binge” he created a deliberate caricature of SNAP recipients as lazy and parasitic while one of his news division colleagues called them all losers. Again, this is coming from the “news” side.

The heavy-handed propaganda aspect of Baier's special was balanced by its feather-light journalistic touch. It's not clear how someone “investigating” the rise of SNAP recipients could barely even mention the massive economic recession that was the primary driver of that increase, but Baier somehow managed to do exactly that, speaking of the spike in SNAP recipients from 2008-2009 as something that just sort of happened when Barack Obama came into office.

It is true that the stimulus package was “one big factor” in the “explosion” of the SNAP program, but there were a host of other contributing factors. According to the CBO: “About one-fifth of the growth in spending can be attributed to temporarily higher benefit amounts enacted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The remainder stems from other factors, such as higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries, both of which have boosted benefits.”

The recession only got a brief mention by Baier as he read the results of a Fox News poll asking respondents what they believe explains the “record number of people on food stamps.” According to Baier, 40 percent said the “severity of recession simply means that more qualify for assistance today, however a larger number” -- 53 percent -- “believe the government has made it too easy to get assistance and people are taking advantage of that.” The data show that those 53 percent are mistaken, but that doesn't comport with the message Fox News is trying to push that SNAP recipients are freeloading losers. So, in the spirit of journalism, Baier ignored the data.

What emerged was a twisted version of the American welfare state based on cherry-picked data points and, frankly, insulting stereotypes of the poor and disadvantaged. And the reason Fox News and other conservatives have to so badly distort programs like SNAP is because SNAP is actually quite an effective program. Conservatives bemoan that there's not enough of a “stigma” attached to seeking help from the feds, but it seems to me that the stigma is already ingrained into our perception -- just think about John Roberts waxing nostalgic about the time we all sneered at the “losers” on “food stamps.” The near collapse of the economy and the ensuing catastrophic job losses drove a lot of people to seek government assistance. My guess is that in the last few years a great many of those people who signed up for SNAP weren't all that happy to do so, but grateful that the program was there. Limited-government proselytizing can only go so far when the government is helping to keep you and your kids from going hungry.

But that, of course, assumes that hunger and malnutrition are maladies that afflict Americans -- an assumption that Fox News isn't prepared to make. For the special, Baier sat down with Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who argues that the “poor” -- quotations his -- in America aren't really poor because they have air conditioning and cable TV. Rector dismissed out of hand the notion that anyone in America could possibly be underfed, and actually argued that “American poor people are not malnourished; they in fact eat too much food.”

The USDA, meanwhile, found that from 2010 to 2011 the number of households experiencing very low food security -- “food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources” -- increased to 5.7 percent, or 6.8 million households.

But those people -- the ones SNAP is designed to assist -- didn't get a whole lot of attention from Fox News. Instead we had Bret Baier presenting the story of a dirtbag California surfer as “the new face of food stamps.”