Food Stamps and the Power of the Anecdote


Fox News has produced a documentary called The Great Food Stamp Binge that focuses a great deal of attention on a California surfer dude who says on camera that he gets food stamps and he doesn’t want a job because he likes his happy-go-lucky lifestyle. And they’re also pushing polling data that shows a majority of Americans think most people on food stamps are taking advantage of the system.

A 57-percent majority believes most food stamp recipients are taking advantage of the system, while just 36 percent think they are truly in need of help…

The Fox News Reporting documentary profiles, among others, a California surfer and aspiring musician named Jason Greenslate. Greenslate shows how he supports his beach-bum lifestyle with food stamps, while dismissing the idea of holding down a regular, steady job.

“It’s not that I don’t want a job, I don’t want a boss. I don’t want someone telling me what to do. I’m gonna live my own life,” Greenslate tells Fox News’ John Roberts. “This is the way I want to live. And I don’t really see anything changing. I got the card. It’s $200. That’s it.”

This is a useful but highly dishonest tactic of using a single anecdote to give viewers the impression that this guy represents all or most food stamp recipients. They even label Greenslate “the new face of food stamps,” but if he is it’s only because they’ve made such an obvious effort to make him into that. And they know very well that what they’re doing works, that most people find anecdotes far more convincing than actual data.

Like the fact that studies show that food stamp fraud is actually less than 1%. And that 41% of those who receive food stamps actually do work but their income is low enough that they still qualify for assistance. Most of the rest are unemployed, which should hardly be a shock after the last few years of massive economic displacement. And that half of all food stamp recipients get assistance for less than 10 months and 74% get it for less than two years. The typical food stamp recipient is not a beach bum leeching off the system, it’s a single parent with children who has been laid off. But those are facts and Fox News doesn’t care about facts. That’s why they focus so much on anecdotes instead of data.

There’s a reason why 57% of Americans think most food stamp recipients are lazy and leeching off the rest of us. It’s because Republicans have worked very, very hard to convince them of that with shallow anecdotes while dishonestly ignoring actual evidence.

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    Aaaaaaaand, this is why I have to take time out of my busy schedule this week to shuttle my mother-in-law around to some totally pointless “how to get a job” training so she doesn’t lose her food stamps. Which is not to say she shouldn’t just suck it up and get an effing minimum wage job at Target or something… but threatening to cut off her food stamps doesn’t accomplish that, any more than it would get through to the California surfer dude. It’s not even ABOUT whether people deserve it, it’s about how much it fucks everything up for the rest of us if we don’t make sure people have their basic needs met.

  2. eric says

    If the guy wants to live on $200/month of food, on my tax dime, I’m frankly fine with that. That’s not a whole lot of blood being leeched. Its far, far less than what ag subsidies or the DOD leeches.

    In fact the amount is so low that I’m skeptical of the picture they’re painting. Either his lifestyle is not as happy-go-lucky as Fox paints it, or he’s working on the side, or dealing drugs, etc… because I’m pretty suspicious of the idea of anyone being able to afford beach bum happy-go-luckiness on $200/month.

  3. cottonnero says

    Perhaps this is a small issue, but I wonder how many people think that Greenslate is representative of food stamp recipients, and how many think that if even one person on food stamps is like Greenslate, that’s reason enough to shut it down.

  4. cry4turtles says

    Those who are willing to allow people to starve have no clue how desperate hungry people can be. It is the greatest motivator of action (good or bad), even more powerful than sexual motivation, perhaps the death knell for our plutocracy?

  5. pocketnerd says

    A question for our posters from other nations: Is resentment and anger at the less fortunate a uniquely United States thing, or do other countries have it too?

    (And… yeah, anybody want to start a betting pool on whether and when Foodstamp Surferdude is outed as a “citizen journalist”?)

  6. badgersdaughter says

    This is one of the things that makes me just sit there with my mouth open in astonishment. One is, “Yeah I understand you are a parent, but you are arguing that you should be able to hit kids“. Another is, “Yeah, I know you work hard for your job-provided insurance or self-insure, but you are proposing to let sick people walk around infecting healthy people and let even sicker people just die without treatment or pain mitigation.” This one is, “Yeah, I know you are a taxpayer, but you are arguing that we should let people starve</i”. What is wrong with people?

  7. Dunc says

    A question for our posters from other nations: Is resentment and anger at the less fortunate a uniquely United States thing, or do other countries have it too?

    We certainly have it here in the UK, but it’s perhaps not quite so virulent…. yet. Our media and political class are working on that though, and quite successfully from the looks of it.

  8. says

    As a bit of an aside, at some point this surfer’s mentality will have to be an accepted way of looking at life. We are quickly approaching a time when automated processes will take over the work force. When we have replaced too many jobs with robots or some other form of AI. Eventually, and maybe even in my lifetime choosing not to work will simply have to be a valid choice in life, and then what. How will society deal with that change? With our current trend of vilifying anyone who doesn’t choose to spend their life enriching the already rich, I just don’t see this ending well.

  9. cry4turtles says

    I imagine resentment and anger at the less fortunate only lasts until the less fortunate act on their resentment and anger at the fortunate (see The French Revolution and especially “The Terror” ).

  10. D. C. Sessions says

    how many think that if even one person on food stamps is like Greenslate, that’s reason enough to shut it down.

    As distinct from those who don’t need a reason, or those who are just looking for an excuse?

  11. D. C. Sessions says

    I imagine resentment and anger at the less fortunate only lasts until the less fortunate act on their resentment and anger at the fortunate

    That depends a lot on the power differential between the fortunate and the unfortunate. The amount that the unfortunate will tolerate depends a lot on how much the power differential depends on economic power (directly or indirectly). When it’s mainly a matter of muscles and blunt instruments (the fortunate are generally healthier and stronger) the tolerance can be pretty small. Likewise when it’s single-shot muskets and lots of people own them.

    When it’s blunt instruments against horses and metal swords, lances, and armor (plus hired longbows) — the unfortunate can stand a lot of misery. When it’s handguns versus air power, armored vehicles, and robots, well, the unfortunate have to be very, very desperate indeed.

  12. raven says

    Those who are willing to allow people to starve have no clue how desperate hungry people can be.

    True.

    If they get hungry enough, they will kill for food.

    A Harvard prof. once did a study on what people do during crop failures and famines. The first thing they do is start raiding their neighbors. Humans do not starve to death quietly.

    BTW, that story about the surfer dude is pointless at best and possibly just false.

    Something like half of all food stamp recipients are…children.

  13. eric says

    When we have replaced too many jobs with robots or some other form of AI.

    Bah, I think that’s a dystopian myth. There is always more useful work people can do. If not stamping licence plates, then designing a better license-plate-staming machine. In some far future where machines provide for all of our mundane needs, there will still be art, science, philosphy, journalism, politics, etc. Figuring out our social goals is an inherently human activitiy.

    Eventually, and maybe even in my lifetime choosing not to work will simply have to be a valid choice in life, and then what. How will society deal with that change?

    And now that’s a utopian myth. :) You don’t see the irony in posting that claim in response to an article about food stamps? Also, I think I can safely say that if the human race has your problem, it’s becaues we’ve been big winners in many other ways. Let’s face it, any problem statement that begins with the starting assumption “after we solve world poverty and hunger, how will we deal with…” is a much smaller problem than the ones it replaces.

  14. says

    You keep looking at the bad. Look at the good. Yes, they’re still poor-baiting, but at least the guy isn’t black.

    I mean, look how inclusive the Southern Strategy is now! Black, white, poor, working poor, single parents…there’s enough resentment now to smear most of the country’s population. Now that’s progress. Woo! Meanwhile, all you liberals do is point out that most of the Undeserving Poor aren’t undeserving! How divisive!

     

    “Like the fact…”

    …that half of people who are on SNAP are children.

  15. raven says

    USDA Blog » FACT vs. FICTION: USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition …
    blogs. usda. gov/…/fact-vs-fiction-usda’s-supplemental-nutrition-assistanc…‎

    Jun 24, 2011 – Most SNAP recipients were children or elderly. Nearly half (48 percent) were children and another 8 percent were age 60 or older. Working-age …

    SNAP (Food Stamps): Facts, Myths and Realities – Feeding America
    feedingamerica. org /how-we-fight…/snap-myths-realities.aspx‎

    76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. …. Eighty-three percent of SNAP households have gross income at or below …

    There you go. Them’s the facts.

    The Tea Party/GOP war on food stamps is mostly a war on poor children, the disabled, and the old people. Happy go lucky surfer dudes aren’t even a rounding error.

  16. caseloweraz says

    Dugglebogey: If anecdotes are all that matter, let’s have a conversation about gun control…

    The pro-gun folks have been having that conversation for a long time.

  17. scienceavenger says

    A 57-percent majority believes most food stamp recipients are taking advantage of the system, while just 36 percent think they are truly in need of help…

    This is typical of Foxnews “reporting”. Never mind the facts, report on what people think the facts are.

    @7 You have to understand that its not the less fortunate they hate, its the lazy and irresponsible. They just don’t understand that the former greatly outnumbers the latter. They think since their lily-white middle class selves made a decent life for themselves, everyone should be able to do so at the same rate. They think they live in a total meritocracy. See Atlas Shrugged.

  18. D. C. Sessions says

    half of people who are on SNAP are children.

    If being forced to cut back on steak, lobster, and decent Beaujolais isn’t enough to motivate one of these parasites into getting a job, then we’ll have to resort on making their children get by on second-class delicacies.

  19. caseloweraz says

    Fox News: A Fox News poll released Wednesday shows 74 percent think Americans rely too much on the government and not enough on themselves.

    So if a majority of Americans think that Fox News should be shut down…

  20. pocketnerd says

    @ #10, ericbragg:

    The idea of a post-scarcity life of leisure is appealing, but futurists have been predicting that one for quite a while. I think the road is a lot bumpier than most futurists are hoping… and particularly, I suspect that “choosing not to work” will never be an option on the table while society is controlled by oligarchs who want you as a consumable resource to be exploited rather than pursuing personal fulfillment. This is a phenomenon we’re seeing now, and there’s no reason to suspect it will stop just because of advances in automation and AI.

  21. says

    I just looked up the California requirements for eligibility. If he isn’t working or in a public work program for at least 20 hours per week, and doesn’t have a disability that prevents him from working, he woulld be eligible, at most, for 3 months of payments during a 3-year period. So aside for all the reasons for skepticism already suggested, his wopping $600 grand total take is what he is supposedly living on. And if he is somehow scamming his way around the requirements, I predict an indictment for fraud, because you know they’re looking at him.

    I did some reading over at his facebook page. The guy appears to be a world class tool.

    Meantime, Fox continues to be a disgrace.

  22. scienceavenger says

    Actually, I’d argue that the post-scarcity life of leisure is already coming upon us, a little at a time, providing one keeps one’s expectations static instead of allowing them to increase as society progresses. In many ways it would cost next to nothing to live by 1960’s living standards of technology, medicine, etc. I’m not saying that’s a just arrangement of the wealth, but a doable one.

    As one example, anyone with teenagers knows they don’t have the same attitudes towards driving that we did. Most of us couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel, because there lied freedom, and a social life with our friends. But now, due to easy social access through phones and other media, many kids see driving as a burdon they’d just assume do without. Movies, music, all sorts of entertainment are practically free. For someone who wants nothing else from life but electronic stimulation, the Surferdudes life is realistic, albeit completelty empty and shallow.

  23. says

    You have to understand that its not the less fortunate they hate, its the lazy and irresponsible.

    No, they really do hate the less fortunate. The right-wing brain is very hierarchical in its thinking; the rich are at the top because they’re superior, and the lower classes are scum who deserve to suffer. Calling them lazy and irresponsible is simply a way to rationalize their class resentment.

  24. says

    “Its far, far less than what ag subsidies or the DOD leeches.”

    The SNAP program IS an Ag subsidy.

    “@7 You have to understand that its not the less fortunate they hate, its the lazy and irresponsible.”

    I think you need to understand that the less fortunate ARE lazy and irresponsible if you’re a reptilican

    I get $16/month in EBT. I’d get more if I had a mortgage instead of shitloads of HIGH INTEREST short term debt, Il est mort lentement,.

  25. says

    I didn’t mean the utopian idea of a complete post scarcity economy which I agree will most likely never happen, but the middle ground where a large chunk of normal jobs are no longer an option. We are seeing this now, as more and more companies replace manual labor with automated labor. Sure there will always be jobs, but to think companies will just pay people to keep them busy is a bit of a stretch as well. Yes there will always be a place for the people expanding knowledge and researching new things, but those jobs are not for everyone. However, the fast food employee, the gas station attendant, and hell most retail sales associates, these jobs are inherently programmable. Retail stores are going out of business all over, not just because of the economy, but because of places like amazon, with warehouses that are already mostly automated.

  26. pocketnerd says

    @ #29, ericbragg

    I didn’t mean the utopian idea of a complete post scarcity economy which I agree will most likely never happen, but the middle ground where a large chunk of normal jobs are no longer an option. […] the fast food employee, the gas station attendant, and hell most retail sales associates, these jobs are inherently programmable.

    Sure, but if the oligarchs can keep wages low enough, it’s still cheaper to hire a human to flip those burgers or pump than gas than it is to buy a bot to do it. Merciless Cthulhu, people are making less than subsistence wages already — that’s like making your plow mule buy its own hay.

  27. says

    I really don’t mind so much if a few surfer dudes and hippies living off welfare is the price our society pays for preventing starvation and crime. I’d say that’s a great deal.

    One more thing: a lot of people who are well off seem to not understand how much work just being poor is. You can’t take the car to get groceries, but must walk and take public transport. You can’t go to the nearest supermarket, but must find the cheapest – and you may have to visit multiple to get the best deals. You can’t just go once a week and be done with it, because you can’t afford an oversized freezer and fridge. You can’t just mindlessly swipe your card, but have to know when to use coupons, cash or food stamps, and keep track of any running out. And that’s just groceries. Whenever someone claims that the poor are lazy, you know they’re ignorant, because the poor generally can’t afford to be lazy.

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