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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press The New York Times Is Responsible for the Republicans' War On SNAP

The New York Times Is Responsible for the Republicans' War On SNAP

Sunday, 22 September 2013 15:57

The NYT's responsibility for Republican efforts to cut food stamps may not be immediately obvious, but on closer examination the truth comes out. Look at the basic story: the Republicans want to cut the budget for food stamps. Their proposed cuts don't amount to much in terms of the entire federal budget but they are likely impose considerable hardship to the people affected. If the Republican cuts go through, between 2-4 million very low income people would lose benefits that average $160 a month.

These cuts are likely to be a serious hardship to the people affected. But what do they mean to the rest of us? The answer is not much. No doubt you heard the New York Times and other media outlets reporting that the Republican cuts would reduce projected federal spending by 0.086 percent over the next decade.

If you don't recall hearing that one you probably are not alone. This number has not been featured very prominently in the news reporting on the proposed cuts. Instead, the New York Times and other news outlets routinely refer to the proposed $40 billion in cuts.

This matters a lot. The reality is no one has a clue what $40 billion in spending means over the next decade. There are probably 5-10 thousand budget wonks with their nose in these numbers who can make sense out of hearing that the Republicans want to cut $40 billion in spending over ten years. For just about everyone else, the NYT and other news outlets are just saying that the Republicans want to cut a REALLY BIG NUMBER from food stamps over the next decade.

This is not a debatable point. Polls consistently show that people have no clue as to the total size of the budget. And they have little idea what are the major spending categories that absorb most of their tax dollars. I have raised this issue with many budget reporters and not one has ever tried to claim that any substantial portion of their readers had a clear idea of what budget numbers meant, especially when expressed over 5-10 year periods.

We even got a wonderful demonstration of this problem when Paul Krugman mistakenly took a 10-year proposed cut in food stamps as being a 1-year proposed cut and made it the basis for a NYT column. How many NYT readers are more knowledgeable about the budget and used to dealing with large numbers than Paul Krugman? If the NYT's reporting on the budget can mislead Paul Krugman what does it do for the more typical reader?

By deliberately choosing to report budget numbers in ways that are meaningless to the overwhelming majority of its readers the NYT is ensuring that almost everyone is ignorant of the issues at stake. (I am picking on the NYT for the simple reason that they are the leaders. It is far and away the best newspaper in the country. If it changed its practices in this area, it is virtually certain that most other news outlets would quickly follow suit.)

It is this ignorance that makes the SNAP debate possible. There is no doubt that much of the motivation for the cuts has little to do with saving tax dollars, but is rather about kicking people in the face who are viewed as lazy, undeserving, and different. But to sell this line to anyone other than a relatively small minority of hardcore haters, it is necessary to convince people that real money is stake.

How many Republicans in Congress would be out there yelling about the need to save 0.086 percent of the budget by stopping no good cheats from getting food stamps? As much as people might want to stop these no good cheats from getting food stamps, most people would probably think that their representatives in Congress should be dealing with more important issues. Maybe they should be talking about something that affects at least one tenth of one percent of the budget.

It is absurd that we are having a major national debate on an issue when almost no one understands what is at stake. The reality is that we are talking about cuts that could be quite painful to a relatively limited group of low income people but will have no noticeable impact on the budget over the next decade. The fact that most people do not recognize this fact can be blamed on the New York Times and the manner in which they choose to report on the budget.

Note: Typos corrected.

Further Note on Proofreading -- folks, I know that I often have many typos in these posts. They are often written quickly. Also, I happen to be the worst proofreader of my own writing. I read what I had intended to write, not what appears in print. Several readers regularly notify me of mistakes they find. I appreciate this and try to make corrections as quickly as possible. This is really the best I can do. We cannot assign a person to proofread everything I post, especially when many of the posts are at weird hours, and on weekends and holidays.


Comments (18)Add Comment
an example people may be able to identify with
written by JDM, September 22, 2013 5:01
You head down to the Honda dealer to price a new 2013 Civic Coupe. The MSRP is $18,755. The dealer says he'll give you a discount off that and offers to knock off $16.13.

Do you jump on that and thank him for the substantial saving, or do you walk out insulted?

That's 0.086 percent savings. It's chicken feed. And that's all at once; to truly be like the food stamp issue it would be the dealer offering to pay you $1.62 a year for 10 years.
Noble sentiments, but you need a copy editor, Low-rated comment [Show]
NYT Also Accepted R's Frame
written by Robert Salzberg, September 22, 2013 6:52
On Thursday, a NYT editorial about about cuts to SNAP didn't include the fact that SNAP is already scheduled to be cut by an estimated $5 billion in fiscal 2014, (or 0.1388% of the budget) because of an expiring provision of the 2009 stimulus. So the proposed additional food stamp cut is smaller than scheduled November 1st cut. So why is all the column space being devoted to the smaller of the 2 cuts?

Democrats control the Senate and the Presidency but have caved on continuing SNAP in its current form and have allowed the debate to be framed in terms of additional cuts above and beyond the current scheduled cuts. When you accept the opposition's frame, you lose before you begin.

This matters a lot.
written by JaaaaayCeeeee, September 22, 2013 7:24
This matters a lot. It is this ignorance that makes the SNAP debate possible.

You could substitute a lot of austerity demands for SNAP, or whatever-complex spending that doesn't even get reported. At some point, like economies, news has to be about more than branding, rebranding, or who Chuck Todd thinks is marketing to him better.

This matters a lot, and the public good is served by you so patiently harping on it.
Monica is right, get someone to proof-read
written by Trace, September 22, 2013 8:13
Your writing is always spot on and very witty. You've got a tremendous ability to get right to the heart of an issue and explain complex ideas clearly. You really gotta do something about the typos though. Personally, I don't care about them because they're not that frequent (about 1 per post it seems) and I can still understand perfectly well, but I think others who aren't as familiar with you might be turned off. Think of it as an easy way to reach more people.

P.S. The "do" in the last sentence should be "dont" and The End of Loser Liberalism is a great book.
Looking Up From a SNAP Beneficiaries' Perspective
written by Robert Salzberg, September 22, 2013 8:41
According to the CBO, the House bill would reduce SNAP benefits by $1.282 billion for fiscal 2014, or 0.0356% of projected government spending.

Compare that with the estimated $5 billion or 0.1388% of the projected budget for 2014.

Has anyone in the media pointed out that from the SNAP beneficiaries stand point, the accepted cuts are around 4 times larger than the proposed cuts for next year?

written by watermelonpunch, September 22, 2013 9:15
This is so important. Truth!
So few people understand the scope & size of the budget.
SHAME on the New York Times and all the news reporting that follows suit.

RE: proof reading

We, the regular readers, are Dean Baker's proof-readers.
I see it as the least I could do, considering I don't have to pay one cent to receive this wisdom & information.
Dean Baker obviously spends a lot of time doing this important work. I suppose nobody can be an expert in everything.

As long as he doesn't expect us to one day come to his house & change his bed pans for free so he can blog on... it's all good. ;o) ^^
There is plenty of waste in Ag/Food programs
written by Tom, September 22, 2013 9:29
Why are we cutting from the most needy?

Cutting other places could make agriculture more efficient, sustainable and reduce pollution. Crop and crop insurance subsidies for millionaire farmers when profits are at record levels need to be cut.

Profit vs. Conscience
written by James, September 23, 2013 12:49
NYT and other media are in the business of selling papers to get ads and a profit. A $40 billion in saving or waste will be a better headline than 0.086% for the next decade.

Writers know it, reviewers know it, editors and editor board know it too.

But when the issue affects the powerful groups, then they will say it's not material even increasing the rate on the super rich.

They will say $250K is not conisdered rich and should be increased significantly highter.

Peopl who are anal or have a hard-on for periodic mis-spelled words, I think this is considered a blog. Like other followers have commented, we care more about substance, not superficial sh*t.

If you care about superficial sh*t, you can GFYS. Oops, was that a spelling thing?
written by Dawn Lobell, September 23, 2013 5:58
I just wanted to comment on the proofreading issue. I am CEPR's Director of Development. I will attest to Dean's statement that we don't have the staff to proofread Dean's posts - considering Dean's productivity, we
would need 20 times our current staff just to keep up with Dean's daily output on BTP, not to mention his columns and op-eds, etc.

I am also CEPR's only development person, so I too sometimes miss typos when writing our grants. I just hope that our program officers are reading this and counter that with the fact that we consistently rank number one in press hits per budget dollar...even press hits with a typo here and there!

So many thanks to all of BTP's regulars, especially those of you who take the time to proof Dean's posts now and then - everyone at CEPR appreciates your support, and understanding.

written by liberalnlovinit, September 23, 2013 6:11
Professor Baker, Forget everyone's obsession with corrected spelling, punctuation and grammar. Well, at least not to the point that it costs you credibility.

Your message is much, much more important.
written by PeonInChief, September 23, 2013 11:43
Wow. I thought I an awful person for sending Baker an email when his typing is not up to snuff. But berating him for making a mistake? Really?
written by PeonInChief, September 23, 2013 11:47
One question, though. Should we note the typos in the comments section, so that once one has been reported, we needn't report it again, or send a personal email? If we send typo emails, we could fill up his inbox with "it should be 'do', not 'don't' in the fourth paragraph of x post."
Another missed opportunity to cut the subsidy for obesity
written by Tom, September 23, 2013 6:13

Both SNAP and crop subsidies promote obesity and disease.

It's time to cut the subsidy for sugar and junk food.

written by Fred Brack, September 23, 2013 6:55
Never, ever give up your campaign for intelligible budget reporting, Dr. Baker. Maybe it's having no effect now, but someday, like the persistence of water drops on marble, it might. Win or lose, it's certainly something for which you will be, or should be, eulogized.

Your note on proofreading was also worthy. As a newspaperman/free-lance writer (ret.) I had a working lifetime's experience with typos. When you say, "I read what I had intended to write, not what appears in print" you're on solid ground. Research has shown that's the way the brain works. A writer's brain simply doesn't recognize typos, or homonyms. It takes another brain to do so. That's why as a reporter, writer, and editor I cherished anonymous copy editors the way the way quarterbacks and coaches value offensive linemen.
Cheating's O.K.!???
written by Chingatch, September 23, 2013 7:48
Sooo, Cheating is O.K. if it is below your arbitrary limits?
Depriving someone of ill gotten gains is somehow a "hardship"???

I give up!
Typos As Fundraising Tool?
written by jerseycityjoan, September 23, 2013 10:13
Perhaps you could use the lack of money for proofreaders an copy editors as a way to raise money. Mention that the organization is sometimes caught releasing documents that are less than perfect due to money and staffing restraints.

In the alternative, mention the "no proofreaders, no copy editors, no fat" policy as a virtue when telling contributors that their contributions will go to vital work only, that you won't even use the money for a much-needed administrative staff person.

National debates almost always proceed without a factual basis
written by Justafed, September 24, 2013 6:34
I am not sure why Dean Baker is outraged that the SNAP "debate" is proceeding in a nearly fact-free environment. This is the usual situation. Recently we have been hearing a lot about the continuing resolution bill that will be debated by the Senate. But what proportion of them have even read the bill? How many in the press would even know where to find it? Believe it or not, there is some important stuff in there, including one section completely relevant to SNAP, but I have seen zero coverage of what is actually in the bill (and it is actually pretty short).

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.