Thursday, September 20, 2007

Media blind to 'food stamp challenge' manipulation

On Tuesday, the Lucas County Commissioners decided to accept, from Toledo Area Ministries, the 'food stamp challenge.' Under this 'challenge,' elected and community leaders are encouraged to live on only $21 per week, which is the 'average' amount a person on food stamps receives in benefits.

Of course, our commissioners, Tina Skeldon-Wozniak, Pete Gerken and Ben Konop accepted the challenge - in front of tv cameras and assorted press.

But the problem is that the challenge is bogus. And because I'd read BizzyBlog's posting on this back in April, I knew that. And because I'd also read Ari and Jennifer Armstrong's debunking of the outcome of the challenge, I knew that it was possible to live on $21 per week.

But here are the facts. No one in the country is expected to live on only $21 a week. The maximum amount of food stamps a person can get - having no other income or resources - is $36.57. Those who get "only" $21 per week have been determined to need only $21 based upon a comprehensive formula which shows other funds (up to 30% of wages/other cash assets) available to be devoted to purchasing food.

But, knowing that this 'challenge' started some time ago, I couldn't help but wonder why our commissioners were just getting around to it. Having been in politics in Lucas County too long, I knew there had to be more to the issue than just their desire to "show empathy" for those less fortunate. So I did some research.

A simple google search provided enough links to connect the dots. The primary sponsor of the challenge is a group called Food Research and Action Center and they have several links on their website to the challenge, including all the media and internet coverage of those who've accepted the challenge. They even provide a toolkit, produced jointly by them and The Hatcher Group, a "a public affairs firm that connects nonprofits and foundations to policymakers and the media. We focus exclusively on progressive policy issues and work to advance our clients' agendas for social change."

Interestingly enough, under FRAC's legislation link is a letter to "anti-hunger allies" encouraging them to support two bills in Congress to increase funding for the food stamp program. Their letter even includes talking points reiterating the $21 per week figure.

So, curiosity getting the better of me, I wondered if there was any connection between our local organizations and this national group...and that answer was quickly found. The Toledo Area Ministries "Feed Your Neighbor" program website has a feature called "10 Food Stamp Outreach Ideas for Faith-Based Organizations" and, at the bottom of this list, are some links - including one to FRAC.

In case you're wondering, TAM was one of 14 organizations nationwide to receive a USDA grant for Food Stamp Outreach. The maximum amount an agency could get was $75,000 and TAM received $73,809 to train volunteers on how to pre-screen food stamp applicants and provide application assistance.

Those are the dots...connecting them leads to this:

A national non-profit begins a publicity campaign to draw attention to the food stamp program and calls it the "Food Stamp Challenge." National group links to local groups and pulls them into the stunt by getting them to enroll local elected and community leaders in the challenge. Local leaders 'prove' the point that you can't live on $21 a week and, even if you can survive, you can't do so in a healthy way. Local groups report back to National group who then uses all these local 'examples' and numerous media reports as evidence that the Food Stamp program needs more money. National group then testifies about the program and the need for more money, using the sympathy gained from 'challenges' across the country to urge Congress to act accordingly.

Connecting the dots wasn't hard to do...all it took was a couple of hours on the internet searching and reading. And it leads to several conclusions.

Our County Commissioners are either ignorant or deceitful. Either they were ignorant of the national publicity stunt and it's intended purpose or they knew the ulterior motive and failed to share it with the public when they accepted the challenge.

If they claim ignorance, it makes me wonder what else they're ignorant of and makes me question their ability to actually research issues on which they vote. If they knew the ulterior motive - to generate public sympathy for legislation and provide false evidence that $21 is not enough - they should have been honest about their purpose, admitting so upfront. But instead you have Comm. Gerken insisting 'it's not a publicity stunt.'

But this entire challenge isn't about honesty. It's about manipulation. It's about generating false data to prove a point. The $21 a week amount is so obviously bogus that there can be no excuse for our commissioners to not have questioned the amount. Such an error is further compounded by the fact that local Job and Family Services staff - who actually administer the food stamp program in Lucas County under control and direction of the commissioners - are participating. And they - more than anyone else - know that no one is expected to live on $21 a week for food.

Additionally, the challenge was accepted under false pretenses. They didn't accept the challenge with concept of actually succeeding. They're trying to prove it CAN'T be done. Commissioner Konop actually said, "The whole point ... is to fail." Well, obviously! Any success wouldn't look good to those using the 'failures' as justification for more funding. This was manipulation at its finest - or worst.

But the real tragedy is the media's reaction and coverage of this stunt. No one questioned the amount. No one asked why they're were using the 'average' or even what conditions would exist for someone to get just the 'average.' No one researched this to find out that such challenges were going on across the country, sponsored primarily by FRAC. And no one connected the dots to the overall plan of generating media stories to support a particular position regarding food stamp legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Except me, as part of my substitute hosting on Eye on Toledo, and WSPD's other talk show hosts, Fred LeFebvre and Brian Wilson.

All the other media did was record the press conference and then dutifully play the recordings or write the story. I even wrote an email to the reporter who covered the initial story for The Blade:

In today's story on the commissioner's food stamp challenge, you wrote:

"But for the next week, Tina Skeldon Wozniak, commissioner president, Pete Gerken, and Ben Konop have pledged to live as the least among their constituents do, spending the same amount - $21 a week per person - that the U.S. government believes is adequate to feed themselves."

However, this is not correct. The U.S. government does not believe that $21 is adequate to feed an individual. Actually, the amount a single person with no other resources can receive is $35.67. The $21 amount is the 'average' because most people who receive a food-stamp supplements have other income. In fact, food stamp recipients are expected to spend about 30% of their resources on food.

You, and The Blade, missed an opportunity to truly educate the public about this issue by accepting the information presented without verifying the actual numbers.

But it wasn't just The Blade, every outlet that has covered the issue, so far, has done so as presented - generating the 'appeal to emotion' so needed by the organizers to gain public support for increased funding.

Sadly, the lack of inquiry - or any simple investigation of what was presented - put them in the position of willingly, or ignorantly, perpetuating the manipulation.

The point now is to hold all of them accountable. Call the commissioners and your favorite media and ask them why they're reporting, falsely, that people are expected to live on only $21 per week. Ask them why they're not reporting that this 'challenge' is part of a national media campaign to push for more funding in bills currently under consideration in Congress. Ask them why the point of the 'challenge' is to FAIL rather than SUCCEED.

And while you're at it, you can ask the commissioners if any of their JFS staff explained to them that $21 might be an average but that no one in the county lives on just $21 per week. And you can also ask them how this helps economic development - a promise that all of them made when campaigning.

UPDATE: This morning, Fred LeFebvre, the morning show host on WSPD, detailed his shopping yesterday to prove that a single person could eat on $21 per week - if they had to. He put photos of the food and receipts on his WSPD page and detailed, in the show, how the food he bought could provide him with nutritious meals for a week. He then donated the food to a local food pantry.

Additionally, Tom at BizzyBlog has published his open letter to The Blade requesting a correction of their wording on the $21 per person per week amount. Check them out!


Hooda Thunkit said...

Totally laughable!

The MSM, that is.

That's why (sarcasm alert) we LOVE them and hang on their every word.
(cancel sarcasm alert)

I however prefer to do my own reading and watching/listening and to think for myself.

I guess that's why I see rampant/rabid Socialism on the march. . ., along with the looming meltdown of the USA...

Peahippo said...

I bothered to measure what a guy like me can live on in a pinch. It was a dollar a meal -- all home prepared, naturally, and including the costs of electricity for the stove. Each of these meals contain meat, BTW, but not much, and the portions are modest overall.

This means about $66 per month (3 meals x 265 days / 12 months). That's $16.50 per week. Throw in gasoline and a few amenities, and $21/wk is a perfectly attainable budget for a single guy's food.

So, knowing that, we can see that the mainstream media is completely corrupted. They refuse to check facts and figures when their own biases are crossed. That's why we're bombarded with yuppie stupidity day and night from the MSM -- since THEY are yuppies, they tend to report the yuppie viewpoint. Credit is good, saving money is bad; new stuff is good, used stuff is bad; etc.

So, I'm sure Kon, Woz and Gerk don't even understand any of the criticisms or analysis laid out here on your blog, Mags. They're well-paid elites, surrounded by a layer of more elitism. Anyone who tosses off 3 bucks for a cup of joe with some regularity simply can't understand the lifestyle of the real working class. They'll certainly never understand MY life. Once Woz walks in to the Salvation Army like I do to buy clothes, then and only then will she get close enough to understand.

Robin said...

One week would be easy. It would be more of a challenge if they had to do this for a month or two.

I don't understand what the big deal is. My hubby and I work... we're not on public assistance. I spend around $100 a week on groceries for a family of four. (That also includes buying toiletries and cleaning supplies).

Maggie Thurber said...

I don't know Robin...I think a month would be easier than a week because you could buy more up front and in a bit larger quantities. Our local meat market does a "3 lbs bulk sausage and free eggs" special. Not doable for a single week's budget, but very logical if you're going to use the sausage for several meals over a month (like spaghetti, meat loaf, breakfast...).

And that's part of the problem with this challenge. People who supplement their food bills with food stamps have the ability to do longer-term planning and to take advantage of sales when they occur. That's just not realistic when doing this stunt of a challenge...but that's the point - to fail!

Robin said...

I guess I'm coming from the point that it's easier to pretend like you are poor for a week and it would be to go a month (or more) at it.

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