Washington Post Launches Sneak Attack on Food Stamp Recipients

Well, leave it to the Washington Post to find a family receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits that reinforces just about every aspect of the “welfare” stereotype.

Not quite every aspect because the mother doesn’t use illegal drugs, though her parents did. But she does apparently spend a fair amount of money on cigarettes.

Now, there are some positive aspects to the story. We learn, for example, that the mother has figured out some ingenious ways to cut the family’s electricity bills, e.g., by taking the light bulb out of the refrigerator.

She’s organized. Has a schedule of free food distributions attached to the refrigerator door. She has a sense of personal dignity, which she communicates to her children. They all have to look their best when they head out to the food pantries.

And she’s a generous soul. She feeds not only herself and her own children, but two nieces, whose mother tends to disappear, and some others who drop in.

On her way back from a food pantry, she gives one of the half dozen breakfast pastries she’s just gotten to a homeless woman who pleads for help.

We’re also given to understand that she’s unable to work because of ailments that either materialized or were exacerbated when she worked two jobs and lived in a freezing-cold house because she couldn’t afford to pay the gas bills, jobs notwithstanding.

But the story still betrays the Post‘s hostility to present-day “entitlements” and its embrace of the standard conservative view that safety net programs foster dependency.

Lack of what conservatives call “personal responsibility” too. How else to explain why the Post chose to focus story solely on a woman who has six children, fathered by five different men, none of whom stuck around very long?

Or on her eldest daughter, who’s unemployed and not much inclined to continue looking for work?

Okay. It’s a true story — and meticulously reported, so far as we can tell. But how representative is it? Not very.

For example, SNAP households with children have an average of only 3.4 members. Well over half have at least one member working in a typical month, except in cases where there’s no one who’s working-age and not disabled.

The number of SNAP households with earnings has, in fact, risen markedly over the last 10 or so years — at least in part because so many jobs don’t pay enough for families to have a net income over the poverty line.

Nevertheless, only slightly over a quarter of participants stay in the program for two consecutive years or more, according to the latest data analysis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By contrast, the mother the Post profiles has participated for all but nine months of her life.

What got me going, however, is the Post‘s eagerness to support both the recent SNAP cuts and those that House and Senate negotiators are working on now.

The Post rightly notes that SNAP spending has risen markedly — as one would expect a responsive safety net program to do during a recession as bad as the last.

But it fails to acknowledge that spending, as a share of our economy, has fallen — and that it’s expected to continue falling for at least five years, when it will reach about the same share as in 1995.

Even in Fiscal Year 2013, before the recent cuts, the total spent on SNAP benefits was only 2% of the federal budget.

Moreover, the Post simply misstates the reason for the recent SNAP cuts. They were, it says, “the beginning of an attempt by Congress to dramatically shrink” the program.

In point of fact, Congress raided the out-years of the SNAP benefits boost in the Recovery Act to partly offset the costs of some additional fiscal aid to the states and again as an offset for improvements in child nutrition programs.

No one, to my knowledge, was talking then about the cuts as a step toward “a cultural transformation,” which, as the Post explains, would “wean the next generation from a cycle of long-term dependency.”

We’re hearing this sort of language now, of course — from right-wingers in Congress and think tanks that supply their talking points.

Perhaps the Post‘s as well. Or maybe it’s coincidence that we find the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation beating the drums about explosive SNAP spending and pernicious dependency.

All I’m sure of is that the Post could easily have found a couple who couldn’t feed their toddler without SNAP because the breadwinner is jobless and unable to find work.

It might have focused on one of the 3,900 or so veterans in the District whose SNAP benefits were recently cut. Not an either/or choice here, obviously.

Or it could instead have profiled a single mom who’s fully self-sufficient and, by any common standard, successful because “welfare” programs like SNAP enabled her to go to college. I know of two who are serving in Congress now.

Or it could simply have told the story of how one poor family is struggling to make the best of a bad situation made worse by the loss of about 15% of its already-low SNAP benefits.

In any case, it could have reserved its editorializing for the editorial page, where such things belong.

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3 Responses to Washington Post Launches Sneak Attack on Food Stamp Recipients

  1. nilknarf1940 says:

    Reblogged this on TMO Alief and commented:
    So, if we cut food stamps to make people less dependent, how do make that work?

  2. […] Poverty and Policy blog takes the Washington Post to task for editorializing about SNAP in their news […]

  3. DW says:

    I caught this article and immediately saw the picture of the “black woman” with the hairdo and the red hair and knew that it would not be something I would feel comfortable reading, but forced myself to read it anyway. The image that the WAPO paints in this story is as old as Women’s Pensions, ADC, AFDC, TANF, SNAP and other “entitlements” and welfare programs and simply reiterates the blatant attempt to ensure that race (now ethnicity) remain central to welfare policy-making. The stereotypes in this story were first popularized in the 40s, went on steroids in the 60s and 70s and formed the a hyperbolic framework for female welfare recipients and what they always “look like”. America’s image is sexist, racist, and belittles those who often struggle to make ends meet via poverty wage jobs after being shuttled through underperforming schools that left them ill-prepared for a life of promise. More and more America is criminalizing and disparaging those in need because it’s easier than dealing with the structural barriers that impede their escape from poverty. Shaming the poor is easier than making certain they have opportunities to no longer be poor and the WAPO just added more fuel to the fire.

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