A hunger for the food-stamp story

Some 45 million Americans use them—Who are they?

The press has shown only sporadic interest in the farm bill, a vast, important piece of legislation that must be considered every five years and is now moving through Congress. As CJR put it in an editorial two years ago, when discussions on the 2012 version got under way, the bill

is a sprawling, complex piece of legislation that mushroomed from an emergency bailout for farmers during the Great Depression to arguably the most important force shaping our food system, farm, and land-use policies. It also has become a factor in energy policy, thanks to the steady expansion (and heavy subsidization) of ethanol.

But the legislation is super-controversial in part because 80 percent of its funding goes for food stamps for the poor, as US News & World Report noted recently, helping to feed 45 million Americans each year. What happens to farm subsidies and to food stamps—officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—will be a sign of how the budget-cutting narrative so dominant in Congress and media plays out. More and better coverage is in order.

A sampling of food stamp stories over the last few weeks turns up discussion of the policy debate, but the people angle has been noticeably absent. If you do some reporting on this, as I have recently, it is pretty clear that a lot of Americans seem to be hungry these days. And they are not that hard to locate and report about.

Minnesota Public Radio and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle stand out in my sampling as news outlets that looked a bit beyond the political news and zoomed in on what the bill’s provisions mean. Julie Siple of Minnesota Public Radio interviewed Lucinda Jesson, the state’s Department of Human Services commissioner, and reported “big consequences” for the 520,000 state residents currently using food stamps, some of whom would become ineligible under the House version (the Senate version is less severe). The bill that passed the House Agriculture Committee last week would force states to follow stricter income guidelines and give applicants an asset test to determine eligibility. “It would mean that a senior citizen who perhaps had saved $4,000 for burial costs would no longer be eligible,” Jesson said. “It would mean that a young mom who’s working and has kids at home, but has to have a modest car to get to her job, wouldn’t quality for food support for her family.”

Siple also talked to Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who pushed back against Jesson. The asset test doesn’t count burial plots, he said, and he argued further that food stamp applicants should have to take an asset test: A handful might suffer, but we would find “tens of thousands of people that are now taking assistance under this program who don’t really need this,” Rector said. Yet Siple also included comments from Deborah Huskins, an area director for the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department. She told Siple that cases of people who don’t need food stamps who get them anyway are not common. “The people who come to us are quite, quite poor,” she said.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle took a localized approach. A piece by Brian Tumulty of Gannett’s Washington Bureau listed 10 reasons why New Yorkers should care about the farm bill—“no matter which side of the debate they’re on.” Besides listing provisions of importance to apple producers and growers of organic foods, Tumulty reported that the food stamp program helps 1.6 million New Yorkers pay for groceries, and that the Senate would cut $4.5 billion from the program and the House $16.5 billion over 10 years, noting that Republicans say such cuts are necessary to control program growth. Tumulty also talked to a real user of food stamps:

Late last month, Enid Bennett of Penfield was distracted by a gaping hole in her 11-year-old daughter Sierra’s birthday. “I can’t even afford to buy her a cake,” the 45-year-old said, her eyes full of tears. The full-time student at MCC, the single mother, relies heavily on food stamps. She can’t fathom the added stress if her benefits were cut. “We need food to live,” she said. “The price of food keeps going up while food stamps are cut.”

Here are some examples of some kinds of stories in the media’s current crop of farm bill pieces:

The bread-and-butter Congressional story.
This version, such as this basic offering from The Associated Press, covers the Who, What, When, Where, Why of the bill’s latest votes in Congress. Still, other than telegraphing what happened, it offers little in the way of explanation. The AP did report that the two legislative chambers are in a race to reach a compromise before Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.

The Congressional story with political variations.
North Country Public Radio built its piece around the efforts of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to restore $4.5 billion in food stamp cuts that the Senate is asking for. Gillibrand, who got support last week from a New York Times editorial, told North Country Radio that “families in NY who are already struggling will lose 90 dollars a month of food that goes on to their tables.”

The News-Gazette in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, used comments by its local Congressman, Republican Tim Johnson, as the frame for its piece. Johnson is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. The paper reported that the House version approved last week would cut spending by about $3.5 billion a year, with almost half coming from the food stamp program, and that Johnson agreed with that division. “The agriculture sector is one of the few bright spots in our economy and must be protected,” he said. “At the same time, our country is hurting. We all must sacrifice where we can.”

Meanwhile Politico posted a story that gave readers the impression that South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn, a mover and shaker in the House, was unhappy with food stamp cuts. “For us to be marking up this farm bill with this big a cut in SNAP is an abomination,” Clyburn said. Politico reported that Clyburn’s comments are significant both for their force and because of his special standing in the House.

The news/advocacy blend.
These are the kinds of pieces that border on advocacy, or at least they have strong political overtones. One from CNS.com, whose parent is the conservative Media Research Center, focused mostly on food stamps. It reported that “nearly 80 percent of the nearly $1 trillion Farm Bill will fund an expanded food stamp program that is projected to offer increased benefits long after economists expect the economy to recover.”

The What If? story.
The Omaha World-Herald did this version, leading with the specter of farmers dumping tons of corn and wheat on the federal government at wildly inflated prices—a possibility only if the bill fails to get renewed and thus we go back to an old system last used in 1949. The World-Herald noted that this could happen “if lawmakers can’t come together to at least extend the current farm bill, which expires at the end of September.”

Some Twitter perspectives
Citizen tips abound on Twitter for a go-after-government food stamp story, though these are not always informed. One theme that emerged is that the government is not transparent about food stamps, although in truth there are a lot of statistics available. One tweeter advised that “food stamp recipients have increased 76 % under Obama. If they really stimulated the economy, don’t you think we’d be in hyper drive now?” A tweet leading back to SunSentinel.com in South Florida said there would be no more food stamp “parties,” a reference to an outreach activity that the USDA has used to help the elderly apply for stamps, but has now stopped. Such “parties” aside, many elderly Americans who are poor enough to qualify for food stamps don’t get them, for a variety of reasons. In New York City alone, 50 percent of seniors age 60 and older who are eligible don’t get the benefit, says Bobbie Sackman, a public policy specialist at the Council for Senior Centers and Services, an advocacy group.

Stats like these help to connect the dots in the budget-cutting discussion. Better yet, the voices of people who use food stamps—or farm subsidies, for that matter—would help fill in the big picture.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , ,