No lawmaker has been so dedicated to cutting food stamps as Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), a distinction which won him a 3,376-word profile by Eli Saslow in Tuesday’s Washington Post. The piece, presented in an expensive-looking magazine-style layout with a side column for pictures and charts, repeats a variety of untruths about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and Southerland’s campaign to curtail it. It omits important context about the program, the fight over it this summer on Capitol Hill, and the consequences of the proposals Southerland and his party support.
But despite those journalistic failings and Southerland’s own misinformation, the profile’s conclusion reveals an interesting nugget: Southerland has never even tried to have a meeting with the one Democrat he believes he could work with on food stamps for fear of political backlash. After telling his daughter that Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) seemed like someone he could work with, she asks him what McGovern says to him about Southerland’s ideas. “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him,” is the response. “That wouldn’t play so well with the conservative base,” an aide offers, and Southerland agrees that the fight to win reelection keeps him from even talking to McGovern directly. (For his part, McGovern had this to say about House Republicans’ initial farm bill: “I wish that poor people would be treated as well as sushi rice in this farm bill, but they are not.”)
Here are the four most outrageous things about the story, and the facts that everyone who reads it should have:
1. It regurgitates Southerland’s claim that the food stamps program has ‘exploded’ in recent years. “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me. This is a defining moral issue of our time,” Saslow quotes Southerland as saying in the fifth paragraph of his piece. In the next paragraph, Saslow seems to confirm Southerland’s claim, referring to SNAP as “a program that has tripled in size during the past decade, growing to support a record 47 million people at a cost of $80 billion each year.” The steep rise in enrollment in food stamps is due to the Great Recession and the slow recovery. The word “recession” does not appear in the text of Saslow’s piece, though it does crop up in the explanatory text that accompanies one of the graphics off to the right-hand side of the text. That graphic is titled, “Employment rate among SNAP recipients remains steady even as number of recipients surges,” a piece of information that undermines much of Southerland’s argument. A second graphic serves to reinforce Southerland’s claims, showing SNAP enrollment changes from 2008 onward — a time period that erases the economic collapse that is responsible for rising enrollment.
2. It presents opposing claims about food stamps in a he-said she-said format without providing relevant factual information to help the reader decide. It is not until more than two-thirds of the way through the piece that Saslow makes any mention of the notion that food stamp enrollment is tied to the overall economic health of the country. Even then, it isn’t presented in the same factual way as the sentence high above it about “a program that has tripled in size.” Instead, Saslow writes that “[Southerland] said food stamp spending was ‘growing into oblivion’; Democrats said it would decrease just as quickly once the economy improved.” Democrats say that, but so do economists and official data on the program. Even though the story is accompanied by a graphic that undermines Southerland’s claim that work requirements for SNAP are too lax and there has been an “explosion” in dependency due to the program’s failure to force people to work, Saslow makes no mention of the data from that graphic. Readers are left to sort out for themselves who is right, the unnamed Democrats or the man who is the subject of a glowing profile titled “Hard Work.”
3. It regurgitates Southerland’s portrayal of food stamp recipients as mired in poverty and dependency. In the middle portion of the profile, Saslow recounts visiting Southerland’s district in Florida with the congressman and a staffer. The reporter summarizes Southerland’s thinking about people in his own district who want him to support food stamps: “If anything, government was complicit, Southerland thought. It had drained people’s ambition by giving them just enough money to stay poor. ‘It’s a travesty, what we’ve done,’ he said. Food stamps were necessary to ward off desperation for the truly vulnerable – the disabled, sick, elderly – but they didn’t count as a way of life.” But as a whole, the SNAP population doesn’t resemble the portrait Saslow and Southerland paint. The disabled, children, and the elderly make up nearly two-thirds of SNAP recipients — people few would expect to work. Of the remaining group, more than 60 percent have jobs in the month when they begin receiving food stamps, and nearly 90 percent have jobs within a year of having received food assistance.
4. It omits the economic facts that mean Southerland’s work requirements would leave people hungry. From the “Hard Work” headline to the story’s anecdotes about Southerland working to make his reform proposal “utterly unobjectionable,” Saslow’s story indicates to readers that Southerland’s ideas are mild, practical, and likely to function as intended. But the reason Southerland’s proposal doomed the original farm bill earlier this summer is that the way his work requirements are designed would destroy SNAP’s ability to adapt to changing economic circumstances. The whole point of a safety net program is that it can adjust when job opportunities are scarce, layoffs are common, and millions who would like to work are unable to find any work. Work requirements modeled on 1990s welfare reform make that impossible. When poverty spiked during the financial crisis, welfare programs were unable to keep pace with need in large part due to the reforms Southerland wishes to duplicate today. There are currently three people looking for work for every job available nationwide. Forcing people to work or lose their food checks doesn’t change that, and Southerland’s proposal doesn’t guarantee increased funding for job training programs that might sidestep that problem. Other changes the House Republican food stamps legislation makes to eligibility rules will mean that millions of people who earn more than the federal poverty level yet still struggle to feed their families will lose their food assistance. Of the country’s 50 million hungry people, almost half earn too much to qualify for SNAP under the revised eligibility rules.
The House approved Southerland’s proposals in a bill that cuts $39 billion from food stamps over a decade. That 5 percent cut will have to be reconciled with the Senate’s proposal to cut 0.5 percent from the program. Analysts say at least 4 million people would be booted from food stamps under the GOP bill. The SNAP program keeps millions of people out of poverty every year.