Former WashPost Reporter at the Fiscal Times Falsely Claims Food Stamp Caseload Is Down 11 Percent

The Fiscal Times is a generally strong and informative online publication. That said, it has occasionally exhibits symptoms of what could be seen as either serious leftist bias, quite disappointing ignorance, or both.

One such example arrived in my email box early this morning. It contained the following headline and opening tease for a story about the food stamp program:

FiscalTimesEmailFoodStamps022715

Anyone who has followed food stamps even superficially during the past several years should know that the program hasn't seen an 11 percent drop in participation in the past three years, let alone the past one. It's stunning that Eric Pianin, the story's author and the site's "Washington Editor and D.C. bureau chief," doesn't know this, especially given the "over 25 years as an editor and reporter for The Washington Post" noted at his bio.

As seen here, the food stamp rolls have been stubbornly stuck between 46 million and 47.8 million for the past 38 months. The number of households has bounced around in a range between 21.97 million and 23.11 million. The most recent numbers from November showed 46.27 million participants and 22.70 million households. This stuck-in-neutral situation has endured even as the economy has added millions of jobs.

Pianin's underlying article repeats what's in the email, and ventures into further areas of inaccuracy:

Federal food stamp caseloads dropped 11 percent last year as the economy continued to improve. But some GOP lawmakers see the potential for further cuts to the $74 billion program, which has increased more than 45 percent since President Obama was sworn in.

Stop right there. The only way you can get to anything resembling a 45 percent increase is if you give Obama's predecessor full credit for all the results in fiscal 2009. Costs have doubled since fiscal 2008:

FoodStampCostsPerFY2008to2014

Additionally, anyone still wondering where Pianin got his 11 percent reduction won't find any solution to that mystery in the dollar figures. The reduction from 2013 to 2014 was only 7.3 percent.

Getting past the numerical problems, Pianin's basic description of the program in his seventh paragraph is flawed:

SNAP helps low-income Americans afford a nutritionally adequate diet by giving them benefits through a debit card that can be used only to purchase food. Actual benefits are relatively modest. SNAP households receive an average monthly benefit calculated by the cost of living in their state. Hawaii, for example, gets $443 per month, while Oregon households receive $215 on average.

Lord have mercy.

The Monthly Allotment table is the same for everyone in the lower 48 states and DC:

FoodStampAllotmentsFY2015

Reductions to those allotments to arrive at benefits paid are based on specific personal and family circumstances. As might be expected, those reductions are generally smaller in higher-cost states. But even though the government compiles and presents average benefits paid by state, the calculations are still individually done and aren't comprehensively pegged to general "cost of living." It's hard to imagine how Pianin could have thought otherwise.

There is also an all too predictable "Republicans are being mean" meme in two of his preceding paragraphs:

(Mike) Conaway (R-TX) said he’s launching a program review with no preconceived notions. There are a number of bipartisan work-requirement reforms enacted in the Agricultural Act of 2014, he noted, that have not been fully implemented and could help cull the rolls.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), a champion of SNAP, charged that Conaway and other Republicans have already decided to tighten regulations and cut food stamp spending – and are using the hearings as political coverPolitico reported. McGovern said the committee should examine new farm bill subsidies instead, which are projected to cost far more than anticipated.

What's really annoying about Pianin's presentation is that the explosive growth of the program, contrary to popular perception, is not entirely due to the recession. That's an obvious factor, but the many relaxations in eligibility requirements which occurred because of "emergency" actions taken in many states during the recession — actions which have mostly not been rescinded even 5-1/2 years after its official end — are far more relevant.

Many states have dropped asset requirements, enabling individuals and families with tens of thousands of dollars in the bank to collect benefits. Others have raised gross income limits. Then there is "categorical eligibility," which enables people, many not truly needy, to qualify solely because they participate in another government welfare program.

In light of all of this, to claim that addressing food stamp spending is all about "tightening regulations" is really an unfair characterization. It's really about getting those regulations back to where they were when the economy was healthy. Given that the Obama administration, up to and including Dear Leader, insists that the current economy is wonderful, how can they object to any of this?

It would be tempting to be charitable and merely say that this is not the The Fiscal Times's finest hour. Given that it's the work of its Washington editor, that's not happening. This is very disappointing. If Pianin wants to peddle clearly biased, obviously inaccurate work like this, he should return to the Post.

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

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

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