NYT, CBS & The Independent All Mislead on Record Food Stamp Use

Many media outlets have hyped projected 2008 food stamp usage as a “record high,” but as FNC's Brit Hume pointed out Wednesday night in showcasing a particularly misleading take in The Independent in London, a higher percent of Americans were on food stamps “back in the Clinton years.” Hume showcased the London paper's Tuesday front page headline, “United States of America 2008: The Great Depression,” which asserted that 28 million on food stamps in the U.S. represents “the highest level since the program was introduced in the 1960's.” Hume noted:
But critics suggest, however, that that number is misleading since 28 million people would be just 9.2 percent of all Americans. Back in the Clinton years, food stamp distribution reached at an all-time high of almost 10 and a half percent in 1993 and 1994 and 10 percent in 1995.
The Independent matched Monday's front page New York Times article, “As Jobs Vanish and Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record,” in which Erik Eckholm asserted “the number of Americans receiving food stamps is projected to reach 28 million in the coming year, the highest level since the aid program began in the 1960s...” Lifting that story, on Monday's CBS Evening News reporter Bill Whitaker ominously intoned: “With jobs declining and prices for basics -- food, fuel, medicine -- on the rise, more Americans are expected to turn to food stamps in the next year than at any time since the program began in the 1960s.

The April 1 story in The Independent, by David Usborne in New York, began: “Food stamps are the symbol of poverty in the US. In the era of the credit crunch, a record 28 million Americans are now relying on them to survive -- a sure sign the world's richest country faces economic crisis.”

For an image of the “Great Depression” cover of the tabloid.

Wednesday' Investor's Business Daily (IBD) dug out the numbers and percentages from Department of Agriculture data and, in a Wednesday editorial, “Media 'Depression,'” scolded journalists: “It's been said the press notice the homeless problem only when a Republican's in office. The same could be said for food stamps, which the media now are using as an economic indicator.”

The April 2 editorial detailed:
...[T]he 28 million Americans who will use food stamps in 2008 is the highest number ever. But that raw number is a poor measure; it doesn't provide context.

What's relevant is the percentage of the population that's on food stamps. And the worst years there are 1993, 1994 and 1995.

Yes, it was during the second Camelot presidency that the largest portions of the population were using food stamps: 10.4% in 1993 and 1994, and 10% in 1995.

Even if 28 million Americans use food stamps in 2008 as projected — and eagerly reported — with 303.5 million people in the country, the rate of 9.2% would still be lower than those three Clinton years.

Any discussion of food stamps should also include eligibility rules, which have been altered through the years. At various times, it's been harder to get food stamps. One example: the years that followed the 1996 welfare reform. At other times, the standards have been relaxed, as they were with the 2002 farm bill.

Enlistment drives are another factor. (Where's the federal campaign to promote self-sufficiency rather than dependence?) Washington is currently promoting food stamps and changing the system from one of paper coupons to electronic debit cards in hopes that removing the public humiliation that comes with using food stamps will encourage more people to take part....
Hume's April 2 “Grapevine” item:
The liberal British newspaper The Independent ran a front-page story yesterday with the heading, "United States of America 2008: The Great Depression." The problem is, the article is about food stamp usage and never mentions a depression. It says “28 million people in the U.S. will be using government food stamps to buy essential groceries, the highest level since the program was introduced in the 1960's.”

But critics suggest, however, that that number is misleading since 28 million people would be just 9.2 percent of all Americans. Back in the Clinton years, food stamp distribution reached at an all-time high of almost 10 and a half percent in 1993 and 1994 and 10 percent in 1995.

Oh, and that front-page photo showing people standing on a relief line turns out to be three years old and has nothing to do with food stamps. The picture was taken back in 2005 and shows people lining up in New York for an annual free coat giveaway.
Ken Shepherd's earlier NB item, “Independent's 'Great Depression' Photo Was From 2005 Coat Drive,” reported how Jim Geraghty at National Review Online noted “the stark-looking photo for the paper's story was three years old.”

My March 31 NewsBusters post, “CBS Follows NYT, Warns More Going on Food Stamps Than Since 1960s,” recounted:
Monday's New York Times hyped a dire congressional study, and CBS jumped hours later with a matching story full of anecdotes and relying on the expertise of a left-wing activist -- naturally, unlabeled. "The economic slowdown has left a lot of Americans struggling to pay their bills," CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric asserted, highlighting how "a congressional report projects a record 28 million will receive food stamps in the coming year."

Leading into a soundbite from a representative of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reporter Bill Whitaker ominously intoned: "With jobs declining and prices for basics -- food, fuel, medicine -- on the rise, more Americans are expected to turn to food stamps in the next year than at any time since the program began in the 1960s."

Whitaker moved on to more emotion, how one woman "is still stretching beans and her budget to feed her four boys and granddaughter," but "with Congress fighting over funding, millions like" her "won't find much more in the pot."

The front page New York Times headline over the article by Erik Eckholm, a former Carter administration political appointee: "As Jobs Vanish and Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record."

"That's quite a melodramatic headline," the MRC's Clay Waters observed in a TimesWatch analysis of the Times story, taking on the headline's claim of vanishing jobs which CBS copied with a reference to declining jobs: "For one thing, what 'vanishing jobs'? The national unemployment rate for February was 4.8 percent, unchanged from January. The headline writer's source seems to be a Congressional Budget Office report 'citing expected growth in unemployment.' No jobs have 'vanished' yet, but that doesn't stop the Times."

The March 31 New York Times story began: "Driven by a painful mix of layoffs and rising food and fuel prices, the number of Americans receiving food stamps is projected to reach 28 million in the coming year, the highest level since the aid program began in the 1960s..."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center