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Should Poor People Eat? Let’s Hear From Both Sides!

Either there was a massive economic collapse, or people are cheating the government. Who’s to say which side is right?

(Photo: via Shutterstock )

OK, so maybe this headline is slightly unfair, but it seemed like a good way to capture the essence of a USA Today story (9/18/13) about the fight over food stamps.

As you may already know, House Republicans are looking to cut some $40 billion from the SNAP program, otherwise known as food stamps, over the next 10 years.

It’s not unusual for politicians to disagree; one would hope that journalism might intervene on the side of the facts. But here’s how USA Today’s Paul Singer presented the issue:

The cost of the federal food stamp program has exploded over the past decade, according to the Department of Agriculture. In 2001, the program served 17 million people at a cost of just over $15 billion. By 2012, there were 46 million people enrolled at a cost of a little under $75 billion.

Democrats say the program has grown because the economy tanked; Republicans argue much of the expansion is attributed to states giving benefits to people who do not qualify.

Well OK then–either there was a massive economic collapse, or people are cheating the government. Who’s to say which side is right?

The paper gets quotes from lawmakers–Republican Eric Cantor’s office explains they aim to “restore the integrity of this safety-net program,” while Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern says the idea that people are cheating in order to get food stamps instead of working is “a lie.”

Again, who’s right? That would seem to be a rather important matter. Luckily there’s plenty of evidence available. Alan Pyke of ThinkProgress recently noted (9/6/13) that the latest report from the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general found no problems with “high-dollar overpayments” in the SNAP program. And according to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities (3/28/13), SNAP “has one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit program,” with a very small amount of funds going to overpayment (about 2 percent of the total cost of the program). And the group’s research also shows that increased enrollment in SNAP is historically correlated with economic downturns. This is what caused the size of the program to spike in 2008 and 2009; the rate of growth has slowed considerably since then.

So there does not seem to be much of a problem with “waste”–which is the core argument that one side of this debate is making (unless their real aim is to simply reduce the amount of money poorer people get to buy food). But USA Today doesn’t seem interested in arriving at this conclusion, preferring to take the line they use in the subhead–that these cuts “could cut waste or hurt poor, depending on viewpoint.”

That’s balance, of course–and it’s also very misleading.