Did You Know That Food Stamps Was a $760 Billion Program?

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Tuesday, 18 June 2013 05:09

I sure didn't, which is why I was surprised to see an NYT article refer to it as "the $760 billion program." This number is referring to the cost of the program over a 10-year budget window, which careful readers may have gleaned from the rest of the sentence which tells us that fraud accounts for 1 percent of the program's cost or $760 million a year. Nowhere does the piece directly say that the $760 billion figure refers to a ten year spending number and not a one year number.

This is a great example of the absurdity of budget reporting. It is highly unlikely that most NYT readers assume that budget numbers are for a ten year horizon. While this is a standard in budget wonk circles, it is hardly a normal practice anywhere else. Giving a spending figure without even explicitly telling readers the number of years it covers is not providing information. This should not have gotten by an editor.

It would have been simple to write this in a way that would convey information. The government is projected to spend a bit over $50 trillion in the next decade. If the piece had described projected spending on the food stamp program as a bit more than 1.5 percent of projected spending then most readers would have a reasonable idea of the importance of the program in the budget and to their tax obligations. If it makes people feel better it could also include the dollar figure, but since almost no one knows the size of the projected budget (especially over a ten year horizon), the percent number would provide far more information.

There is no excuse for using numbers that don't convey information when it is so simple to use an alternative that would be easily understood by the vast majority of readers.

 

Note:

The NYT has a corrected the piece so that it no longer refers to food stamps as a $760 billion program. It would be nice if they described it as a percentage of the budget so as to actually convey some information to their readers.