November 3, 2009

50% of American Kids Receive Food Stamps

Marx was right.  America is finished.

I saw the news article late last night, then read the study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, and was blown away.  The data were solid: simple enough, just ask people if they'd ever been on food stamps, and count them. 

30 years of household interviews, 1968-1997.

By age 20, 50% of all kids will have used food stamps at one time.

For black kids, the figure is 90%.

40% of kids in married households will have touched food stamps; it's 91% of kids in unmarried households.

The good news is that only 19% will use them for more than 3 consecutive years, which, of course, is also the bad news.

I was all set to be terrified about America's future, until I read the accompanying editorial, which reminded me of something someone said:

The bottom line is that the current recession is likely to generate for children in the United States the greatest level of material deprivation that we will see in our professional lifetimes. The recession is harming children by both reducing the earning power of their parents and the capacity of the safety net to respond. However, it is also essential to recognize that children have been made extremely vulnerable to this recession by a decades-long deterioration in their social position.

That something was: what does the author want to be true?


In this case, while the results are technically accurate, they don't mean what it looks like they mean, i.e. that we should dust off Oliver Twist for a glimpse into our future.

Although the Food Stamp Program described in the paper is separate from the Women-Infant-Children (WIC) program, it appears that the study conflates the two.  It's not relevant to the outcome of the study, so I'll simply focus on the WIC to show you why the headline is alarmist and misleading.

First, in determining household income, only the legal family is counted.  The income of unmarried couples, grandparents, etc is not counted.  This is true, e.g.,  even if the boyfriend is the biological father and he lives there or gives money.

Second, even though cutoffs for income are written as annual figures (e.g. $22,050 for a family of 4 or "185% of federal income guidelines"), they don't look at the past year's income, they look at how much the household is making right now, and then extrapolated.

income determination.JPGDon't be fooled by "rate" of income.  If you just lost your job, your rate is zero; you are eligible.  And the next "mandatory" review is every 6 months.  See you then.

Third:  No proof?  No problem.

exceptions.JPGFourth:  and more relevant to food stamps, a person can receive income from exempted sources (there are many);

Fifth: unlike unemployment, in which you have to "show" you are looking for work, food stamps aren't tied to need, only to nominal income.  If you choose not to work (or choose to do volunteer work) and thus have no income, you're eligible.  I'm not accusing people of abusing the system, but it is evident that some people would make adjustments in their behavior if food stamps didn't exist, rather than be committed to growth retardation and scurvy.


There's also a bit of crazy, crazy math in play.

Nevertheless, only approximately 60% of those who are eligible for the program actually participate in and receive food stamp benefits.  Consequently, it could be argued that the number of food stamp recipients represents an undercount of the total number of households in need of food assistance.

So... 90% of America is in need of  food stamps?


You will notice that I haven't used this study to make any judgment on whether food stamps is a "good" or "bad" program, not because I don't have a... nuanced... opinion, but because the study can't be used that way.  However, it will be/is used precisely in that way.

It's troubling that, as scientists, it never occurs to the authors to objectively speculate why these figures might be erroneously high; in fact, they assume that they are too small.

Studies like this one are op-eds with numbers.  They promote the particular bias of the doctors (read: social policy analysts) writing it.  If 50% of kids get food stamps, then food stamps are necessary, end of story-- that's the point of the study.  No politician in his right mind would dare question the implementation of such a program, let alone the need.  In other words, it's not the the actual data that compels social policy, but rather the ability to say, "doctors have determined that..."

The press report interviews the author, the author of the editorial, and James Weill, "president of Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group."  Gee, I wonder what they're all going to say.

I've many times remarked that doctors spin data to subtly impart their particular bias.  Sometimes, however, they just yell it at you.  Here is the first sentence of the each paragraph of the editorial:

  • Clinicians always inherit the results of bad social policy.
  • Children are poor because their parents are poor, a fact that ties the well-being of children to the employment status of young adults.
  • Children are particularly vulnerable to the current recession owing to the longer-term crisis in the American family's ability to provide for its children.
  • In meeting the basic needs of children, the only real alternative to the family is the state, an alternative that is increasingly incapable of meeting the growing need.

And goes on like this, until the last paragraph:

  • Children depend upon political proxies to advance their societal claims.
Note that he sets up the government not outside a family helping it, but inside the family, as a proxy parent, able to pick up the slack.  Since the government has money, it looks like this works, and it seems crazy to say you want them out ("are you saying you want the government to stop handing out food stamps?"

But the populace is being trained to see themselves not as solely responsible for their children, but as part of a larger network of interested parties.  That may sound comforting, but it radically alters behavior.  It reinforces your connection to the state, as opposed to fostering your independence from it; and you become willing/obligated to sacrifice more and more in defense of the bureaucracy.