The American food stamps program has experienced “unprecedented” and “unsustainable” growth under President Barack Obama according to experts, but the broadcast news media have virtually ignored this bad news this election year.
The three broadcast networks would rather not remind voters that a record number of Americans received food stamps under the Obama presidency, or that more than 46 million Americans have been on food stamps for 35 straight months. While Obama has said that “every single one” of his policies is “on the ballot” this fall, the media have worked hard to protect him from bad news, especially if there can be any connection.
When it came to food stamps, the networks deflected concerns away from “the Obama administration’s failed economic policies,” according to Tad DeHaven of libertarian think tank, Cato Institute. DeHaven did not blame Obama solely for the problem. He was frank about the role of Republicans in expanding the food stamp program in 2002, but also explained the program was supercharged by a 2008 bill in the “Pelosi Congress” and again by Obama’s stimulus bill and has been exacerbated by the “sluggish economy.”
“Thus, it’s fair to hold up the increase in food stamps usage as being emblematic of the Obama administration’s failed economic policies,” DeHaven concluded.
Official data from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that the U.S. government’s food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), grew dramatically in terms of both enrollment and spending since Obama took office. But ABC, NBC and CBS news programs didn’t mention these facts between Oct. 1, 2013, and Oct. 27, 2014, failing to raise any concerns regarding SNAP in nearly 98 percent of stories (47 of 48).
These networks also completely neglected to ask whether there could possibly be any connection between the 46 million Americans who received $76.1 billion through SNAP and what The Heritage Foundation called Obama’s “failed war on poverty” and purposeful “expansion of the welfare state.”
Instead, the media preferred to vilify conservatives when discussing food stamps. Rather than highlighting Obama’s economic track record, the popular approach was to find ways of blaming conservatives, like for purportedly perpetuating “low wages.” They attacked conservatives for proposing so-called “spending cuts” to SNAP, and for driving “more than half” of fast-food workers to food stamp dependency by not agreeing to minimum wage hikes.
What the Media Said (And Didn’t Say)
The media did their best to keep Obama from becoming labelled “the food stamp President,” a term employed by some commentators and politicians.
The media ignored any connection between how “the Obama Administration’s economic program has been a dismal failure” and the “increase of 18 million people [enrolled in SNAP], to 46 million Americans now receiving food stamps,” Charles Kadlec, a financial commentator and former investment executive, noted in a Forbes op-ed Aug. 13, 2012.
Despite promising economic progress during his 2008 campaign, “President Obama has not changed course, but rather continues to advocate more spending and higher tax rates,” said Kadlec.
None of these stories noted SNAP’s record high spending and enrollment under Obama, and certainly did not mention that these increases could possibly indicate problems with the administration’s economic policy. With a pivotal mid-term election approaching, the broadcast news networks avoided implying that the Obama administration or liberals ought to shoulder any blame.
When blame was assigned, it was to conservatives rather than the administration’s policies. For example, networks attacked conservative opposition to minimum wage hikes, rather than considering how the administration’s economic policies could have increased food stamp dependency.
On “Nightly News” Dec. 5, 2013, anchor Brian Williams sought to shift attention away from the president’s agenda. He asserted that not raising the minimum wage was to blame for so many SNAP recipients in the fast food industry. During protests by fast food workers who demanded that the minimum wage be more than doubled, Williams said that “taxpayers are footing some of the bill for low wages,” and said that “more than half” of fast food workers received government benefits like food stamps.
Apparently, Williams thought that raising minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour would reduce dependency on entitlements, rather than creating “higher prices and fewer jobs,” even though Williams admitted the “restaurant industry” predicted otherwise.
Williams’ statement also contradicted the perspective of “any sensible economist,” according Professor David Neumark, Director of the Center for Economics and Public Policy at University of California, Irvine. "I don't think there's any sensible economist who thinks you could double the minimum wage and not throw a lot of people out of work," he told NPR.
The president and his agenda deserved scrutiny from the media according to Heritage, since “Obama’s plans for a permanent expansion of the welfare state are unsustainable.”
The only network story that actually raised any concerns about SNAP aired on “Evening News” Jan. 8, 2014. It highlighted congressional Republicans’ decision to form a “poverty task force,” focused on “searching for ways to incentivize work, tying job training and work requirements to government benefits like food stamps.” In the same segment, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said the government’s so-called “War on Poverty” was “not working,” citing the 46 million Americans who received food stamps as evidence.
Media Attack Conservatives for ‘Cuts’
The broadcast news networks rarely reported on SNAP in detail, but when they did, they used the airtime to place some blame on conservatives in Congress.
There were a handful of stories in which the media discussed food stamps in depth when conservative congressmen tried to reign in SNAP’s bloating budget in late 2013 and early 2014. In those, the networks preferred to focus on anecdotal evidence and nuanced statistics that suggested Americans were being hurt by conservatives’ reform efforts.
Norah O’Donnell, co-anchor on “This Morning” Nov. 1, 2013, bemoaned the end of $4 billion worth of stimulus funds to SNAP saying budget cuts to the program would affect “some 900,000 veterans.” O’Donnell went on to employ some fuzzy math, stating that “House Republicans are looking at making more spending cuts” to food stamps. This was after she mistakenly said that Congress already cut $80 billion annually from the program, the entire yearly budget of SNAP, a gaffe she quickly attempted to correct.
What O’Donnell neglected to mention was that liberals decided to make that cut back in 2010. Even The Huffington Post admitted, “It was Democrats, not Republicans, who voted to take the increase away in order to pay for other priorities in 2010 (Republicans opposed the increase in the first place).”
O’Donnell, like most broadcast journalists, also conveniently forgot to mention the practice of “baselining” or baseline budgeting, a common government practice. Unlike budgeting in any normal business or household, government agencies consider receiving any amount less than projected increases to their budgets as cuts. So often when the media and politicians talk about budget cuts, either a budget remained at a certain level or was increased less than the agency’s budget request. This creative accounting method often was used to bash opponents who did not go along with proposed budget increases.
Networks Repeat Old, Tired Arguments
This blame game was nothing new for the broadcast news networks, each of which also protected Obama on the food stamps issue during the height of the recession. Similarly, there was virtually no coverage of the drastic growth in SNAP at that time.
Back then, conservatives were attacked as “racist” for questioning the president’s policy on food stamps or for suggesting reforms. When Newt Gingrich appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” May 15, 2011, former host David Gregory immediately pounced on him for using “racially-tinged language” during a speech. At least before jumping down his throat, Gregory had the decency to rebroadcast Gingrich’s original remarks which said nothing about race, but did crystallize the extent of the food stamp crisis that had occurred during Obama’s tenure.
“You want to be a country that creates food stamps, in which case frankly Obama's is an enormous success? The most successful food stamp president in American history. Or do you want to be a country that creates paychecks?” said Gingrich.
Statistics Show a Food Stamp Crisis
It is clear that a huge amount of growth in SNAP happened under Obama’s watch.
Increases in the size of SNAP were “unprecedented” since 2008, according to a report by the Manhattan Institute, the conservative, New York City-based think tank. The authors of the report, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow, and Claire Rogers, Research Assistant, attributed this expansion to a combination of “the difficult job market” and an “expansion of benefits” starting in October 2008.
Statistics released by USDA also showed the huge expansion of food stamps under Obama. In 2013, 20 percent of American households were enrolled in SNAP. Enrollment had increased from 32.2 million individuals in January 2009, to at least 46 million individuals during the last 35 straight months for available data. This upsurge represented a jump of more than 42 percent.
Meanwhile, spending on SNAP benefits rose by nearly 120 percent, from $34.6 billion to $76.1 billion, between 2008 and 2013. The increase in spending far outpaced enrollment, and could be attributed to greater benefits handed out per person. “SNAP began to pay more generous benefits to people who enrolled” between 2007 and 2011, according to an analysis published on The New York Times’ Economix blog Aug. 29, 2011.
Economist Peter Ferrara agreed with labeling Obama the “food stamp President,” calling out the administration’s “anti-growth, economic policies, which are precisely crippling the poor and the middle class” in a Forbes article Dec. 31, 2013.
While these increases were partly attributed to Obama’s economic policies, they could also be linked to lax enrollment policies implemented by the president. These policies included waivers for healthy individuals with no dependents and who were not actively seeking work.
“The food-stamp work waiver is part of a larger agenda. Poverty advocates have long sought to convert food stamps into a no-strings-attached entitlement,” Heather MacDonald, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in a New York Post op-ed on May 15, 2014.
Two Heritage Foundation fellows said that while part of the growth in SNAP could be attributed to the country’s poor economic conditions, Obama has also increased the size of the program through his budget proposal.
“Part of that growth is due to the recession, but under Obama’s proposed budget, food stamp spending will not return to pre-recession levels when the economy recovers. Instead, it will remain well above historic norms for the foreseeable future,” Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow, and Katherine Bradley, Research Fellow, at Heritage wrote.
The MRC’s Business and Media Institute analyzed all the stories which included the term “food stamps” that ran on the broadcast network news shows from Oct. 1, 2013, through Oct. 27, 2014. Specifically, the shows reviewed were “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “This Morning,” “Nightly News,” “World News,” and “Evening News.” Of the 48 stories that resulted, only one asked whether SNAP was working effectively.