Framing Error

After probing a little more deeply into the reported cuts in the food stamp (SNAP) program, I think there’s a bit of confusion, possibly willful. Here’s the Huffington Post’s commentary:

This week House Republicans voted again to take food from the mouths of our most vulnerable citizens. After failing to get support for a $20 billion cut in food stamps during farm bill negotiations earlier this year, on Thursday Republicans passed an even larger reduction of $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

These cuts show Republicans fundamentally misunderstand what poverty looks like in America. They aren’t even aware of the living conditions for their own constituents, where reports show Republican Congressional Districts saw bigger increases in suburban poverty in recent years. They don’t see that for some our economy has rebounded but for far too many the struggle to put food on the table continues.

and here’s Agri-Pulse’s reporting:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2013 – The House approved Thursday a three-year nutrition bill (H.R. 3102), with a partisan 217-210 vote, that aims to cut about $40 billion over 10 years for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and provide various reforms to the program.

All 217 votes in support of the bill were cast by Republican lawmakers. Fifteen Republicans joined 195 Democrats in opposing the bill. Five Democrats and one Republican did not vote.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and other Republican lawmakers said the bill would make “common-sense” reforms to the SNAP program largely by encouraging work and ferreting out fraud and abuse.

Agri-Pulse is a news resource specializing in farming and rural policy coverage. The SNAP program is administered by the Department of Agriculture.

Here, on the other hand, is an editorial from the New Hampshire Union Leader:

The New York Times “reported” on Friday: “House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps.” The bill “slashes billions of dollars from the food stamp program,” intoned Times writer Ron Nixon. Narrative established: Republicans heartlessly devastate a program that feeds the poor.

One had to read to the sixth paragraph to find this sentence: “But even with the cuts, the food stamp program would cost more than $700 billion over the next 10 years.”

The Republican bill would cut $40 billion over a decade from a program that will still spend $700 billion over that period. It is a scratch, not a deep cut. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Republicans would “take food out of the mouths of millions of American children…” About those millions…

It used to be that food stamp recipients had to meet tight income and work requirements to qualify. Now more than two-thirds of recipients get on the program simply by qualifying for other federal assistance. And the work requirements have been relaxed.

Do you see the differences among them? The HP coverage is highly agonistic and emphasizes the plight of the poor recipients, victims of the awful, heartless Republicans. It fails to mention the actual scope of the cuts—$4 billion per year or making qualification for the plan more rigorous. The Union-Leader emphasizes the growth in the plan over the years without mentioning the growth in the need for the plan over the years. At least Agri-Pulse’s coverage is factual rather than being an obvious advocacy piece. None of them specifies the nature of the changes in qualifications for the plan. For that I’d need to go to the primary source material.

Isn’t that what journalism is supposed to be about? Fair and complete coverage of the sources? I shouldn’t need to re-report the story.

Based on the news coverage I can’t determine whether the cuts are warranted or not. I continue to think that the Republicans have erred in going after SNAP. The case for waste, fraud, or abuse just isn’t particularly strong and they’ve probably lost more by their framing of the cuts than they gain by the cuts themselves.

A fundamental principle of optimization theory is optimize where there’s something to optimize. So much of the federal budget is devoted to defense spending, Social Security, and Medicare that it’s hard to justify paying attention to anything else other than for strategic reasons, something absent in the case of SNAP. A principle in negotiation is don’t foreclose options—prepare for future negotiations. Cutting SNAP violates that, too.

7 comments… add one
  • sam

    “they’ve probably lost more by their framing of the cuts than they gain by the cuts themselves”

    Well, that, and the fact that they passed the crop insurance bill. Henry Olsen at NRO:

    I can see why conservatives would find the rise in food-stamp enrollment troubling. People who don’t need government benefits could always be tempted to take advantage of loosely structured government programs. Conservatives are rightly worried about this, and thus are eager to tighten eligibility standards and enforcement to ensure that people aren’t gaming the system. However, crop insurance provides even greater temptations to people with far less justification for government aid.

    America’s crop-insurance program is obscene. Farmers receive government subsidies averaging 70 percent of their premiums to purchase insurance that protects them against declining crop value. There’s no income limit for this subsidy: The vast majority of this taxpayer money goes to farmers who make in excess of $250,000 a year. The insurance policies are sold by private companies, and the government also pays those firms about 20 percent of the premium cost to cover their expenses. The companies get to keep the profits from the policies, so taxpayer money makes crop insurance a largely risk-free investment for insurance companies. Thus, the government uses taxpayer money to pay rich farmers to buy insurance from wealthy insurance companies, whom the government also pays to sell the policies to the farmers. Talk about a “free” market.

    Every problem conservatives complain about in food stamps is even worse in crop insurance. As you might expect when a program essentially offers intelligent, entrepreneurial people free money, they take it, and costs have exploded. From 2000 to 2011 — the same time period Heritage uses to analyze the growth in food-stamp expenditures — annual crop-insurance costs have also increased fourfold, from $2.2 billion to $8.6 billion. But at least with food stamps a significant portion of the cost growth since 2007 — between 30 and 50 percent, according to University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan — occurred because the recession made more people eligible. Crop-insurance subsidies are not means-tested, so their increase is not necessarily due to falling income resulting from bad economic times.

    In fact, crop-insurance subsidies are tied to crop prices, so they rise when prices rise. Crop prices, and hence farm incomes, reached record highs in 2006 and remain historically high today. Thus, the crop-insurance program is designed to give wealthy farmers more taxpayer money when they are already doing exceptionally well.

    It’s a Lewis Carroll inversion: The better you do, the more the government subsidizes you.

  • Yeah, crop insurance (farm subsidies, generally, actually) has become a scam. I’ve been complaining about it for years.

  • PD Shaw

    @sam, sorry the NRO piece doesn’t really say anything to me. I’m willing to believe that crop insurance is a scam, but I wouldn’t understand from that piece.

    What is the “temptation” he is talking about? Is he implying that a farmer will pay for protection against making less than 70% of expected gross revenue and then throw half the seeds down the toilet? Farmers don’t get free money — they pay premiums and make claims when the weather is poor or market prices fluctuate beyond expectations. Much like disability insurance, you cannot get 100% coverage for your losses; that’s part of the protection against fraud and abuse.

    If food stamps were operated like an insurance program, we would all have the option of paying a premium that would pay 50 to 85% of anticipated food costs in the event the insured was no longer able to pay for food. Some might want to prevent people making more than $250k per year from enrolling, but then you just eliminate their premium contributions which expand the risk pool.

  • PD Shaw

    Oh, I thought the title of the post was “Farming Error”

    I’m not so sure about the politics. Republicans have done poorly under the category of “cares about people like me.” Food stamp recipients don’t vote. Its the middle class entitlements that are sacrosanct. OTOH, if more protections against fraud and abuse are enacted which require more government bureaucrats, the Republicans are losing by increasing funding to people that do vote and contribute to the Democratic party.

    Beyond politics though, I think as long as the food stamp program helps those of us in most need, it has my support. If people are buying Cadillacs with stamps, its out of control.

  • Food stamp recipients don’t vote.

    That may or may not be true. I suspect that as the profile of the typical recipient of SNAP benefits has changed so has their voting behavior. Whichever it may be women do vote and the perception of caring is typically significant for them.

  • sam

    “Farmers don’t get free money — they pay premiums and make claims when the weather is poor or market prices fluctuate beyond expectations. ”

    The government’s paying (on average) 70% of the premium is not free money?

    It just struck me that this might be the farm belt’s version of too big to fail…

  • PD Shaw

    @sam, I read that paragraph differently (70% as the average coverage level), but yours is probably the more natural reading.

    The premium support depends on the coverage level requested. So, for example, if the farmer wants coverage for a 50% revenue loss, then the value of the government subsidy is worth 67% of the premium. But if the farmer wants coverage for 85% revenue loss, then the value of the subsidy is only 38% of the premium. IOW, its a declining subsidy for each additional dollar of coverage.

    See chart on page 5

    Coverage for a 50% loss is much cheaper than coverage for an 85% loss. This looks to me like a program that wants to encourage farmers to insure against catastrophic losses, but not the normal vagaries of weather and markets.

    And Olsen appears to have selected 67%, rounded it to 70% in a way that doesn’t reflect the program.

    BTW/ I oppose any federal subsidy for flood insurance within a few miles of a coast. Why? Because I don’t want to subsidize construction in areas of high risk for flood damage. I have not ever read a similar arguments towards risk management in the crop program. If we are subsidizing crop production in high risk areas, then we should stop it already.

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