Former WashPost Reporter's Coverage of Food Stamp 'Cuts' at The Fiscal Times Is Riddled With Laziness, Errors and Bias

April 21st, 2016 9:18 PM

As the Washington Free Beacon reported today (confirmed here in a chart published two weeks ago), the number of Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), traditionally known as Food Stamps, dropped below 45 million for the first time in almost five years (actually, 57 months) in January.

This is hardly cause for cheer, and does nothing to change the fact that in the vast majority of states, the Food Stamp program has been fundamentally transformed during the past eight years into a guaranteed income program. But to former longtime Washington Post reporter Eric Pianin, who has toiled at The Fiscal Times web site during the past six years, it was cause to go after House-led budget "cuts" and efforts at structural reform in an April 14 report riddled with laziness, errors and bias.

Compared to results seen during the last two decades of the twentieth century following downturns, the 6.4 percent enrollment reduction from the program's peak of 47.79 million in December 2012 to January 2016's 44.71 million is pathetically small:

  • Annual statistics from the government show that average monthly enrollment from 1982 to 1988 declined by 14.1 percent from 21.72 million to 18.65 million. That same data shows a steep enrollment dive from 1994 to 2000 of 37.4 percent (from 27.47 million to 17.19 million). Because they are annual averages, the actual monthly peak-to-trough declines were larger.
  • The latter, larger decline was also fueled by the imposition of income and asset requirements which came about during the 1996 reform of traditional welfare (then called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). After the turn of the century, the social-services dependency complex made a concerted effort to increase food stamp enrollment despite the relatively decent 2002-2007 economy. By 2007, total enrollment of 26.32 million was 52 percent higher than it was in 2001.
  • Here we are in early 2016, and we're supposed to celebrate the fact that food stamp enrollment has dropped ever so slightly to 44.71 million - a level that is 70 percent higher than the 2007 average, and which includes 13.8 percent of the U.S. population — even with an "official" unemployment rate of 5.1 percent. This doesn't compute, which is why the contention that SNAP has become most states' guaranteed annual income program during the Obama era is sadly accurate.

The background just presented is important to understanding how bankrupt the alleged "analysis" by TFT's Pianin really is — so bankrupt that I can't possibly critique every weakness, including a few in the excerpts which follow (links are in original; bolds and numbered tags are mine):

Food Stamp Use Is Falling, and the GOP Wants to Cut It Even More

Amid mounting efforts by congressional Republicans and many states to reduce the growth in the federal food stamp program, spending on the program dropped by three percent during the first half of fiscal 2016 compared to a year ago, according to new Treasury Department data.

... During the Great Recession, SNAP was expanded to include able-bodied people adults who had no children, temporarily overturning a provision in the 1990’s that required single people to find a job within three months of receiving the benefit and work an average of 20 hours a week in order to continue to qualify.

As the program grew to 1 in 7 Americans on food stampsincluding college studentsor more than 46 million Americans, the program had become fiscally unsustainable. [1] As the economy and jobs bounced back, SNAP costs began to fall as more people landed jobs. [2]

... The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [3], which has long championed food stamps as an essential element of the social safety net in recessionary times, said that SNAP spending between October 2015 and March 2016 was at the lowest point for the first half of a fiscal year since 2009 when adjusted for inflation. [4]

Dottie Rosenbaum, a food stamp expert for the center wrote on Wednesday that food stamp caseloads were falling and there was no justification for House Republicans to seek massive new cuts in SNAP for the coming fiscal year. [5]

... Late last month, the House Budget Committee adopted a budget plan that would slash food stamp spending by more than $150 billion – or more than 20 percent [5] – over the coming decade and change the program into block grants. Rosenbaum said that a cut of that magnitude would force millions of low-income families out of the program and reduce the monthly benefits for those who remain on the rolls.

... The liberal leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [3] has argued that efforts to cut the program make little sense because SNAP has performed as it was designed to do – which is mainly to respond to the ebbs and flows of economic conditions, [6] expanding when it is needed most and shrinking when times have improved. As a result, the organization says, SNAP isn’t contributing to long-term pressures on the budget and the deficit

The food stamp caseload dropped 11 percent in 2014 as the economy continued to improve. [7]

... As many as one million of the low-income people who will be cut from the food stamps rolls this year will be impacted by the work mandate that took effect in 21 states on April 1 in response to the improvements in the economy.

... "We've seen a long-term trend toward more precarious job conditions for low-skilled workers," Shawn Fremstad, a lawyer at the Center for Economic and Policy Research [3], told The Washington Post. "Even if you get a job, you're not guaranteed more than 20 hours a week." [8]


[1] — Fiscal 2014 and 2015 spending of $70 billion (rounded) was only $6 billion, or about 8 percent, below fiscal 2013's peak of $76 billion. This hardly changes the program's "fiscally unsustainable" status.

[2] — The has been no correlation between SNAP costs, SNAP enrollment, and increased employment. Payroll employment finally stopped falling in February of 2010; the Obama administration's failed "stimulus" ended up extending monthly job losses to eight months after the recession officially ended. February 2010 SNAP enrollment was 39.7 million. Since then, the economy has added 14 million jobs; but SNAP enrollment is still 5 million higher than it was when employment finally began to pick up.

Costs haven't "fallen," either. Spending in fiscal 2010 was $64.7 billion. Spending in fiscal 2015, despite the addition of millions of jobs, was $69.7 billion.

Readers who are beginning to get the idea that Pianin's work belongs in a "fiction" or "fantasy" section at TFT's web site are getting the right idea.

[3] (tagged three times) — Pianin only got comments from liberal groups, and apparently was too lazy to send an email or pick up the phone to get a defense from a Republican or conservative. How pathetically typical.

[4] — 2009 food stamp spending was artificially inflated by an increase in benefits included in the failed stimulus program. In fact, "Once Barack Obama became president, gross benefits went up two times in just over eight months by a total of 13%." The increases were meant to be temporary. Over howls of liberal protest, benefits were finally trimmed a bit (but with adjustments for inflation) several years later. The comparison to the artificially inflated 2009 is bogus. It's fair to contend that the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities knows this, and doesn't care that it's engaging in deception. Pianin, who has followed budget-related matters for a long time, also should have known this.

[5] — Republicans are trying to make sure that enrollment decreases actually occur. The history of the past 15 years tells us that this won't happen without fundamental reform. Reducing enrollment to roughly 35 million nationwide — a figure which is still way too high in historical perspective — would achieve the "more than 20 percent" savings target without cutting benefit levels.

[6] — The idea that SNAP "has performed as it was designed to do," as seen in Item [2], is a pathetic, desperate lie. As already noted, it has become most states' de facto guaranteed income program. The social services dependency complex wants it to stay they way, sustainabiliy be damned.

[7] — This statement is obviously flat-out wrong, and even a casual reader absorbing other stats in the article would likely detect this.

Food stamp enrollment and household participation in September 2014 were 47.31 million and 23.00 million, respectively. In September 2014, the comparable figures  were 46.46 million and 22.75 million. Those are drops of 1.8 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. Maybe Pianin meant to type "1.1" instead of "11"; but if so, the drops are negligible, and the correlation with the economy's (historically mediocre) improvement is, again as seen in Item [2], non-existent. It seems far more likely that Pianin is repeating an error he made and never corrected in a different column in February 2015.

Sparing readers the details, Pianin's math doesn't come close to working with calendar year 2014 either.

[8] — Leftists can't seem to understand why the employment climate has become so tough for part-timers. Apparently they have forgotten, or have chosen to forget, about Obamacare's employer mandate, which forces employers to consider anyone who works more than 30 hours per week a full-time employee for health-insurance eligibility purposes. No wonder so many employers are playing it safe and not even guaranteeing 20 hours per week.

It's really difficult to understand how garbage like this could get through any kind of editing process, which I know for a fact that TFT had at one time. Pianin's work should have been torn to pieces before it saw the light of day. The idea that a 25-year veteran of the Washington Post could produce such dreck really makes one wonder how awful his output must have been when he was there.

Note: I wrote two columns for the Fiscal Times in late 2013.

Cross-posted at