Colorado Couple Meets, and Debunks, the 'Food Stamp Challenge'; State's Media Is AWOL

Back in April, social service spending advocates in Oregon orchestrated the "Food Stamp Challenge," claiming that the average program recipient's benefits of $21 per week were woefully inadequate. Those who took the Food Stamp Challenge attempted to show just how unacceptable this average benefit was by buying $21 worth of food and trying to survive on it for seven days.

The entire premise of the Challenge was bogus from the very beginning, as syndicated columnist Mona Charen and yours truly demonstrated. This table, based on information readily available at the Department of Agriculture, shows what the real benefit levels are, before taking into account any resources (income, etc.) a person or family would be expected to have, based on their actual circumstances, to pay for food themselves (i.e., the average benefit is $21 per person week, AFTER taking those resources into account):

Food Stamps

Program advocates should have been trying to live on the higher amounts listed above, depending on their family size. But they didn't, pretending that the benefit received is all recipients have available to buy food.

Buoyed by the visibility provided when Oregon's governor participated, the Challenge turned into a nationwide phenomenon, with politicians and journalists all over the country getting in on the act. Time and again, gullible Old Media outlets, including the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, disseminated the myth that the average Food Stamp recipient only has $21 per person per week with which to buy food.

Colorado residents Ari Armstrong and his wife Jennifer could have refuted the Food Stamp Challenge by staying within $284 per month, or $32.68 per person per week. Instead, they went much further.

Originally, Mr. Armstrong's Serious Food Economy Challenge called out Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News journalists and editorialists (who for some reason chose $3.57 per person per day, and still pronounced that guideline unachievable), to "bet" against the couple's ability to live on less than $1,080 in food for six months. Losers of the "bet" would have been required to give an amount equivalent to the money not spent by the Armstrongs to charity. Armstrong reports that "all but two supporters of food-stamp increases refused to sponsor our six-month challenge."

So they went to Plan B. The Armstrongs promised, in their Liberty and Prosperity Challenge, that during the entire month of August they would spend $180 or less on food, or slightly under $3 per person per day. The rules they imposed on themselves to keep critics at bay included starting with an empty cupboard, shopping at traditional grocery outlets (no Wal-Marts, and no clubs like Costco), and taking no freebies from anyone.

The overall result, chronicled in detail (including copies of receipts, pictures of food purchased, etc.) at Armstrong's Colorado Freedom Report: The couple spent $159.04, had a modest supply of leftovers (meaning they consumed a bit less than $159), lost very little weight, and lived to tell about it. Rounded, the amount they spent was $21 less than the $180 benchmark they had set for themselves, and a whopping $125 (44%) less than the Food Stamp program's gross monthly benefit of $284 for a 2-person family. Reading through the detail, you will find that Mr. Armstrong even acknowledges having made some mistakes during the month that caused the couple to spend a bit more money than necessary.

Other takeaways from the Armstrongs' Liberty and Prosperity Challenge:

  • Their money-saving efforts, while aggressive, were not in any way, shape, or form over-the-top.
  • Most of us could pick up a money-saving tip or two by reading through what they did and how they did it.
  • It is not unreasonable, and certainly not an assault on anyone's dignity, to expect Food Stamp recipients to take similar measures.

Remember, as long as the benefit formulas are fair (I have not seen any of the original Food Stamp Challenge participants attempt to dispute the reasonableness of the benefit formulas), a 2-person family actually has $104, or 58% more than the Armstrongs allowed themselves ($284 minus $180 = $104; $104 divided by $180 = 58%), and $125, or 79% more than they actually spent ($284 minus $159 = $125; $125 divided by $159 = 79%), to buy a month's worth of food.

Armstrong reported to me a few days ago that Old Media in Colorado, after putting up such a fuss over the alleged inadequacy of Food Stamp benefits earlier this year, has expressed no interest in chronicling the couple's accomplishment and its all-too-obvious public-policy implications.

Surely you're not surprised. Nevertheless, the Armstrongs have performed a valuable service whose results should be referenced when needed. It is the definitive rebuttal to mindless and insulting allegations by some that anyone who has the nerve to suggest that current benefit levels are actually adequate must "hate poor people."

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.