Fox News and a handful of other conservative outlets attempted to rile up their audiences this week when they reported on Jason Greenslate, San Diego beach bum and supposed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) abuser. Greenslate, interviewed as part of a Fox documentary entitled The Great Food Stamp Binge, is quoted as bragging about his lackadaisical lifestyle, full of lobster dinners and shameless flirting, all while living on the government's tab. It was an underhanded gambit, designed to whip up anti-food-stamp fervor, and a quick look into the details shows that it wildly misrepresents the plight of needy Americans.
Fox alleges that the SNAP program is full of examples like Greenslate, who are content with living off handouts from the government. In reality, 76% of households receiving SNAP benefits include children, the elderly, and disabled individuals. 91% of benefits are paid out to families living at or below the federal poverty line ($19,530 for a family of three). Finally, the average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744, with countable resources (such as a bank account) of only $331. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of food stamp beneficiaries are not free riders or idle individuals, as Fox would have its audience believe.
Watch part of the documentary below:
The news stories go on to argue that food stamp participation has increased about 13% since 2008, costing taxpayers millions. What they fail to acknowledge is that this increase follows the Great Recession of 2009 in which the number of unemployed Americans grew by 94% from 2007 to 2011. SNAP is designed to be responsive to changes in need; the number of beneficiaries will rise in times of financial hardship and fall in times of economic prosperity. As the economy begins its slow recovery, SNAP enrollment growth has already slowed and is predicted to fall beginning 2015. And as the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has repeatedly stressed, SNAP does not contribute to the nation's long-term budget problems.
Given these statistics, Greenslate's story seems to be a significant anomaly. Looking closer, however, we see that it's simply the result of bad reporting. Greenslate is depicted as living a highly luxurious lifestyle — on a typical day, he’ll "wake up, go down to the beach, hang out with my friends, hit on some chicks, start drinking" — but the numbers don't add up. He reports receiving benefits of $200 a month, which works out to $6.66 a day, or $2.22. And since that the cost of living in San Diego is the ninth highest in the nation, it seems highly improbable that Greenslate is really living the life he says he is based on food stamps alone.
This sensationalized story represents a dishonest attempt to portray food stamp recipients as lazy and deceitful. It distracts from the serious plights of the 78 million Americans who don't have secure access to food. SNAP has been invaluable, keeping 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, but the reality is that it doesn't go far enough. The average monthly benefit provides a paltry $1.50 per meal, and nearly one third of food-insecure individuals are not eligible for any federal food assistance at all. Before demonizing the needy, Fox and its affiliates should start looking at the numbers and get the story right.