A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Food-Aid Foolery

To learn a bit about how partisans create false political propaganda, take a few moments to study what’s behind this headline: “More People Getting Government Food than Actually Working.”

That claim — appearing on the conservative GOPUSA site — is far from true.

The number of adults “actually working” was just under 136 million in April, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the number of adults — and children — getting any form of federal food assistance was put at 101 million by a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General.

In other words, the GOPUSA headline is off by 35 million people. It’s also a false apples-to-fruit-salad comparison and a fallacious dichotomy as well, as we’ll show in a moment.

Savings Issue Ignored

To be sure, the expansion of food-aid programs and their costs raises a legitimate issue, especially in times of historically massive budget deficits. That 101 million figure is a large one — just under one in three U.S. residents. Furthermore, the Inspector General’s report, released July 3, concluded that the federal government “could potentially achieve cost savings” by eliminating duplication and overlap in its 15 nutrition assistance programs, which the IG said were budgeted at $114 billion in fiscal year 2012.

But the federal Food and Nutrition Service balked, saying a study of the issue would “divert limited resources away from other pressing issues of greater policy relevance.” It agreed only to come up by Sept. 30 with an estimate of what such a study would cost, and how to go about it.

Twisting Facts into Falsehood

But rather than admonish the Obama administration for resisting an opportunity to reduce deficits by streamlining possibly duplicative food-aid programs, some partisan sites are making false comparisons between workers and food-aid beneficiaries.

For example, the GOPUSA item is actually a recycling of an earlier item posted by CNSNews.com, another conservative site. The headline: “101M Get Food Aid from Federal Gov’t; Outnumber Full-Time Private Sector Workers”

The CNS item is a bit closer to being accurate, but misleads and exaggerates in multiple ways.

First, note that it compares those receiving federal food aid with “full-time, private sector” workers — leaving out millions of full-time government workers and millions more who are working part time, usually by choice. Second, as the story makes clear, the number of workers is an average for all of 2012, and thus is months out of date.

Unlike the GOPUSA item, the CNS story is literally true — as far as it goes. According to figures that BLS supplies on request, but doesn’t routinely publish on its website, the so-called household survey found that an average of 142,469,000 were employed during calendar year 2012.

A FactCheck.org technical note: The BLS household survey produces larger total employment figures than the more authoritative and much larger payroll survey we cited earlier, and which nearly all economists use as the standard gauge for total employment. One reason for the discrepancy is that the household survey counts self-employed persons. But the payroll survey does not break down jobs by full or part time, so we will rely for the remainder of our critique on the same household survey figures cited by CNS and GOPUSA.

That 142 million figure for total employment is far more than the estimated 101 million who receive any form of federal food aid, of course. But the CNS story first subtracts all of the 27,661,000 who worked part time (mostly by choice), and then subtracted 17,629,000 full-time government workers (mostly state and local workers including teachers, police, firefighters and such). That got its comparison number down to 97,180,000 “full time, private sector” workers.

That was accurate for 2012, but the most recent household survey figures for June 2013 provide a less dramatic contrast. They show that 144,841,000 people were employed, full time or part time. Subtracting 27,442,000 part-time workers and 17,152,000 full-time government workers gets the number down to 100,247,000 — not too far below the estimated 101 million receiving some form of federal food aid.

Apples to Fruit Salad

The comparison is deceptive not only because it omits millions of productively employed government and part-time workers, but also because it compares adult workers to the total food-aid population, which is largely made up of children (and some who are elderly). That’s not quite comparing apples to oranges, but it is like comparing apples to a fruit salad.

Children made up 45 percent of people receiving food stamps, according to the most recent annual report issued by the USDA in November 2012. An additional 9 percent were over age 60. The program is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP and is the largest of the food-aid programs.

And of course, the national school lunch program, which serves nearly 31 million, goes by definition to schoolchildren. The same goes for the smaller school breakfast program, which serves more than 13 million children.

These food-aid programs overlap (which was the point of the IG report), so we can’t say for certain how many of the estimated 101 million on one or more food-aid programs are children, or who are beyond normal working age. The IG’s report doesn’t provide that detail. But it’s clear the number is a large one, and the comparison of children and elderly to working-age adults is inappropriate.

False Dilemma

The comparison also sets up a common logical fallacy — the false dilemma or false dichotomy. The fact is, millions of those who receive food aid are also working at low-wage jobs. The two categories are not, as the comparison suggests, mutually exclusive.

The IG report doesn’t specify how many food-aid recipients are employed. However, the  USDA’s annual report states that over 30 percent of all households receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) had some earnings in 2011. Furthermore, 41 percent of the people getting those benefits lived in a household with some earnings.

Either way, the idea that people either work or get food aid is a false one.

Careless Error

The GOPUSA headline that first caught our eye further twisted the facts beyond the breaking point, and was simply and grossly false as we noted at the outset.

The story itself is also false, actually misquoting the original CNS story. It says more people are now getting food aid “than are working in the private sector,” which is not correct. The author who cribbed this partisan claim from CNS carelessly failed to specify “full time” workers.

In fact, according to the June figures from the BLS household survey, more than 125 million people were working in nongovernment jobs in June, either full or part time. So both the story and its headline get it wrong. Both the original CNS story and the carelessly lifted GOPUSA story amount to food-aid foolery designed more to inflame partisan biases than to inform.

— Brooks Jackson