As yours truly noted on April 12, actress Gwyneth Paltrow made a bit of a splash earlier this month when she announced that she would add her name to the list of ignorant politicians, advocates and celebrities taking on the deceptively designed "Food Stamp Challenge."
The idea is to "try to survive" eating for a week on the average benefit a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient receives. The objective is to prove that it really can't be done, thereby "proving" that food stamp benefits are too low. Of course, that's what Paltrow claims occurred, with MSNBC.com hyping how she "succeeded by failing." As was the case with an Indiana journalist several months ago, based on the spending figure Paltrow herself disclosed, she was not failing at all. Based on how the program really works, she would have succeeded had she stuck with it.
Pictured below is the collection of items Paltrow says she bought to start off the festivities:
It cost $24.40 (plus a little olive oil and salt)—things like avocados and limes are cheap in Southern California.
As I suspected, we only made it through about four days, when I personally broke and had some chicken and fresh vegetables (and in full transparency, half a bag of black licorice). My perspective has been forever altered by how difficult it was to eat wholesome, nutritious food on that budget, even for just a few days—a challenge that 47 million Americans face every day, week, and year. A few takeaways from the week were that vegetarian staples liked dried beans and rice go a long way—and we were able to come up with a few recipes on a super tight budget.
Paltrow original tweet only referred to the challenge's $29 benchnark (Aside: She should have indicated that the $29 is a per-person, per-week figure.) However, as noted in her more recent blog post, she really spent $24.40.
$29 is what challenge organizers continue to falsely insist is the average amount participants have available to buy food. As I have noted for eight years, according to the program's rules, they are wrong.
The following table, converted to weekly figures from the government's official table, proves it. I have changed the narrative to the right of the table from what was there a week ago to reflect what Paltrow now says she actually spent, and to demonstrate that she was on track to succeed:
As I've explained umpteen times over the past eight years, most recently a week ago:
If the $29 ... is indeed the correct per-person per-week Food Stamp benefit in the US, the example that immediately follows the table at the linked Fact Sheet page — where a $649 Maximum Monthly Allotment is reduced to $308 based on available income — makes it perfectly clear that the $29 is what remains AFTER a person or family on Food Stamps has contributed what the Program believes they can contribute towards buying food from their own resources.
If Paltrow ate everything pictured above — which may not necessarily be the case, given that, to name one example, it contains seven limes, presumably targeted for one-per-day consumption — in four days (she claimed "about four days," a curiously vague term for a supposedly rigorous endeavor), the $20.25 she still really had available to spend ($44.65 minus $24.40) would have carried her through the challenge week's remaining three days.
Thus, Gwyneth Paltrow did not fail. Thanks to her ignorance, and the challenge's deceptive design, she was on track to succeed, and quit.
If those advocating benefit increases have a point, it might be the one raised by a commenter at my week-ago post. That person claimed, in part:
The point you're wrong in is that what the government THINKS someone on food stamps should be able to contribute to their own food budget has little basis in reality.
... There are absolutely people out there on partial food stamp benefit who have no cash at all that they can contribute to their weekly food costs.
Fortunately, I am not in the position of needing food stamps, but I've worked with people who are. You are completely out of touch with the realities of the situation. I challenge you to actually talk to some working single mothers - ask them to share their budgets with you, their daily schedules, their outstanding bills, the actual situation with their healthcare, and the kind of living situations they are in. Find out for yourself by actually seeing it for yourself - the details and the realities.
My response indicates why the Food Stamp Challenges have been counterproductive:
Assuming you're correct, then the people advocating food stamp reform need to make the arguments you're making and work to reform the benefit eligibility formulas to make them more fair and equitable.
But they won't. They're lazy. They just go for the hype with false numbers without arguing on substance. I would argue that many of them don't really care about the situations you've described. If they did, they would behave differently.
Until they throw these deceptive Food Stamp Challenges overboard and get to work on substance, they'll have no credibility, and will deserve none.
Sadly, the commenter then all too typically resorted to personally attacking and insulting me while claiming that I wrote things I did not write.
Note that challenge organizers and participants seldom if ever indicate even in general terms how much benefits should be raised. Apparently, their objective, which can never be satisfied, can be boiled down to one word: "More."
The Food Stamp Challenge has done far more harm than good, has duped its well-meaning participants, and has shredded the credibility of the social welfare advocacy community. Though I'm fairly certain it will continue — after all, look at wha MSNBC claims about Paltrow's "success" — it cannot end soon enough.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.