A November 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture examined the food shopping patterns of American households who currently receive nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) compared with those not receiving aid. Its central finding? “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.”
But you wouldn’t know that from reading the New York Times’ front-page story last Friday. The headline announced “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda,” and the article was flanked by photos of a grocery cart overflowing with 2-liter bottles of soft drinks and a store aisle that is nothing but a wall of soda.
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The actual conclusion of USDA’s study—“both food stamp recipients and other households generally made similar purchases”—is buried 15 paragraphs down from the sensationalized headline. The article did not initially link to or even name the study.
Soon after publication, several experts took to social media to highlight the study’s actual findings.
Joe Soss, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that the article’s main argument—that households receiving nutrition assistance spend vastly greater shares of their grocery budgets on soda compared with other households—is directly contradicted by the report’s actual finding. The difference was incredibly slight: 5 percent versus 4 percent of a household’s grocery spending. The Times also reported that a misleadingly high 9 percent of budgets were dedicated to soda, because the article conflated soda with “sweetened drinks” (which includes many juices).
Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist, noted that the article failed to mention the food item where USDA found the biggest difference in spending: baby food. (Shame on those struggling households for feeding their children.)
Beyond the article’s inaccuracies, there is a broader problem with this kind of reporting. It reinforces an “us versus them” narrative—as though “the poor” are a stagnant class of Americans permanently dependent on aid programs. The New York Times’ own past reporting has shown that this simply isn’t the case. Research by Mark Rank, which the paper featured in 2013, shows that four in five Americans will face at least a year of significant economic insecurity during their working years. And analysis by the White House Council on Economic Advisers finds that 70 percent of Americans will turn to a means-tested safety net program such as nutrition assistance at some point during their lives.
Most families who turn to income supports like SNAP do so only temporarily, and often during periods of crisis (such as loss of a job or a medical emergency). Since today’s low wages make it nearly impossible for families to save for these emergencies, which all of us inevitably face, benefits like SNAP provide critical support. These programs help put them back on their feet—and once they are, they stop their participation.
Americans’ high level of sugar consumption, and the related health consequences, is an important discussion to have. But using a false and divisive narrative that suggests that such consumption is chiefly the purview of people who need to turn to nutrition assistance plays directly into harmful stereotypes, and risks undermining a critical program that protects nearly 5 million Americans from poverty each year. These kinds of narratives have long served as the backbone of efforts to cut safety net benefits, like SNAP, which not only help struggling families in the short-term but also boost economic mobility in the long-term, while stabilizing the overall economy.
The current political climate makes this article particularly damaging and irresponsible. It provides cover for House Republicans, led by Speaker Ryan (R-WI) and President-elect Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), who are poised to move forward with long-held plans to make deep cuts to nutrition assistance and other vital supports. It also enables misguided Republican governors who have long tried to limit what households receiving assistance can spend their SNAP benefits on. These so-called “junk food bans” may sound well-intentioned, but can end up ensnaring healthy, inexpensive staples like canned tuna, dried beans, and potato salad.
If the goal is to create a nutrition assistance program that will encourage healthier eating, cuts to SNAP are exactly the wrong approach. Research shows that increasing SNAP’s modest benefits leads to healthier eating. This comes as little surprise, given that healthy food is generally more expensive. But since SNAP’s modest benefits already run out before the end of the month for most households, it is a luxury that many families cannot afford.
Maybe the New York Times could look into that.