Two Food Stamp Follies: Oregon Governor's Publicity Stunt, and the Reporting on It

Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski got lots of attention earlier this week as he tried to show us how allegedly inadequate the Food Stamp program is (bold is mine):

Ore. gov. starts week on food stamps
By Julia Silverman, Associated Press Writer | April 25, 2007

SALEM, Ore. --If Gov. Ted Kulongoski seems a little sluggish this week, he's got an excuse: he couldn't afford coffee.

In fact, the Democratic governor couldn't afford much of anything during a trip to a Salem-area grocery store on Tuesday, where he had exactly $21 to buy a week's worth of food -- the same amount that the state's average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries.

Kulongoski is taking the weeklong challenge to raise awareness about the difficulty of feeding a family on a food stamp budget.

The governor put on quite a show trying to stay within that $21:

The governor pined wistfully for canned Progresso soups, but at $1.53 apiece, they would have blown the budget. He settled instead for three packages of Cup O'Noodles for 33 cents apiece. Kulongoski also gave up his usual Adams natural, no-stir peanut butter for a generic store brand, but drew the line at saving money by buying peanut butter and jelly in the same jar.

"I don't much like the looks of that," said Kulongoski, 66, staring at the concoction.

..... At the check-out counter, Kulongoski's purchases totaled $21.97, forcing him to give back one of the Cup O'Noodles and two bananas, for a final cost of $20.97 for 19 items.

After the hourlong shopping trip, Kulongoski said he was mindful that his week on food stamps will be finite and that thousands of others aren't so lucky.

"I don't care what they call it, if this is what it takes to get the word out," Kulongoski said, in response to questions about whether the food stamp challenge was no more than a publicity stunt.

But there's a significant problem with the premise behind the governor's awareness campaign, and with the reporting by the AP's Julia Silverman -- a problem that could have been prevented with just a few minutes of research. You see, USDA's "food stamp budget" provides per-person per-week benefits to recipients with no other available resources that are 28%-70% higher than the $21 used in the article.

The Food Stamp Program's "Fact Sheet on Resources, Income and Benefits" provides a table of "Maximum Monthly Allotments" (bold is mine; I converted the Monthly Allotments to weekly allotments per person by dividing by the average number of weeks in a month [4.345], and then by the number of people), and says the following about benefit levels:


The amount of benefits the household gets is called an allotment. The net monthly income of the household is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size to find the household's allotment. This is because food stamp households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food.

The governor, in using $21 as his "budget," and the AP's Silverman, by describing that $21 as what "the state's average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries," are clearly misleading their public, and their readers, respectively, by ignoring the subtraction clearly described in the above paragraph.

If $21 is indeed the correct per-person per-week Food Stamp benefit in Oregon, the example that immediately follows the table at the linked Fact Sheet page makes it perfectly clear that the $21 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 (a fairly complex calculation that is beyond the scope of this post, except of course to note its existence). It is definitely NOT what "the state's average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries." The Program's table assumes that Food Stamp recipients will spend more, and it's reasonable to assume that many if not most recipients do indeed spend more.

Just to be sure that Oregon's Food Stamp program doesn't vary from the national norm, I verified that the Oregon DHS Food Stamp benefit calculator generates results consistent with USDA's table. I used a family of 4 with very little income, and expenses exceeding that income, thereby ensuring that such a family would have no other available resources to put towards buying food according to the Program's definitions. Bingo -- the estimated benefit was the same $518 for a family of 4 listed in the table above.

Now perhaps it's the case that USDA's allotments are inadequate, or that the deductions for available resources are unreasonable. But the allotments are closely in line with the "Thrifty Plan" version of the agency's most recent "Cost of Food at Home" report (link is to a page containing links to each month's report in PDF format), and it isn't unreasonable to expect recipients of government benefits to be thrifty. As to the available resource deductions, they were designed and mostly came about in 1996 as a part of a series of welfare reform laws passed by a Republican congress and signed by a Democratic president, and were seen as needed to curb the rampant fraud and abuse that was occurring at the time.

The bottom lines:

  • If a state governor is going to try a publicity stunt to "get the word out" about a cause he believes in, the least he can do is have his facts straight first. Governor Kulongoski could have picked up nine of those $1.53 Progressos he "pined wistfully for" without busting the program's assumed budget for his food needs (yes I know he's married with three grown children, but in his stunt he was shopping as a single person), with 93 cents to spare.
  • As to reporters -- Rather than gullibly acting as the stunt director's -- er, governor's -- mouthpiece, it wouldn't hurt to spend a few minutes verifying some basic facts to avoid being misled ..... would it?

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