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SNAP to attention, America

The New York Times has an article about the dramatic rise in the number of people enrolled in the Food Stamp Program. In fact, this is a misnomer the Times perpetuates. The nation’s flagship nutrition program is now named SNAP, i.e. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Several hundred words into the article, authors Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff explain the change had to due with the stigma associated with food stamps. Why then continue to perpetuate the food stamp brand by using the outdated name of the program instead of SNAP in the title of the article: "Food Stamp Use Soars, Stigma Fades"?

My concerns about the title aside, the article does a decent job of humanizing the problem of hunger in the United States. It includes some compelling stories. One of the people profiled is an electrician, whom I guess we could describe as the protagonist in the story, formerly too proud to seek help. Now, given his own troubles, he has had a change of heart about the people he used to think were just chiselers.

With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job. He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five children. 

He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

For readers who want to pour over lots of data, the article includes, or at least the online version does, SNAP usage rates in every county of the country, broken down by several useful indicators, like race, children, and rates of program growth since the start of the recession.

Some things the article doesn’t do are worth highlighting. For instance, a statement like this gives a misleading impression about the program:

Like many states, Ohio has campaigned hard to raise the share of eligible people collecting benefits, which are financed entirely by the federal government and brought the state about $2.2 billion last year.

Yes, the benefits are federally funded, but the states bear at least 50 percent of the administrative costs, and at a time when the program's rolls are swelling at 20,000 people per day, while state budgets are getting slashed due to loss of revenues from the recession, people may be applying for benefits they are rightfully entitled, but can’t access them because offices aren’t properly staffed to handle the load of applicants. 

Another problem I have with the article is the apparent “balance” the authors felt necessary to include, quoting the creepy Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation:

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.

How the Times can let a remark like this slip by without questioning Rector about how exactly do you require people to work when there are no jobs—presumably the reason they may need the program—seems to be taking deference to a new low.

Finally, Mr. Dawson, the electrician and our protagonist, for all the humbling he’s had thanks to the recession, still fails to connect some important dots that the Times could have helped him with—if not solely for Dawson’s benefit, at least so that readers understood the economic stimulus SNAP has on local economies. Those SNAP benefits mean as much to the economies where Dawson works as they do to the families that need them to put food on the table. Indeed, the benefits that Dawson and his family, and families like them, are using may be the only reason he still has a job installing lights in, how about this irony, grocery stores.

At the end of the article, Dawson still views the choice of “do I take government help, do I not take government help” as the only thing at stake. The Times missed an opportunity to educate the public about how much more is at stake than this.

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