Saturday, October 25th, 2014
Half-True
National Republican Congressional Committee
"Since President Obama took full control of Washington," every day, 13,000 more people "have been put on food stamps."

National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 in an advertisement

NRCC ad blames Barack Obama for food stamp use rising by 13,000 a day

The House Republicans' campaign arm created this ad to challenge President Barack Obama's stewardship of the economy.

A recent ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee -- the House Republicans’ campaign arm -- offers a flurry of statistics to argue that President Barack Obama doesn’t deserve a second term.

"What's become of America since President Obama took full control of Washington?" the narrator says. "A wrecked economy, with debt and waste beyond imagination. Since then, gas prices have gone up more than 82 percent. Every single day, more than 1,500 of our jobs have been lost. Every day, another 2,700 of us realize it's been six months since we last had a job. Every day, more than 6,000 of us have begun living below poverty, while 13,000 more have been put on food stamps, and more than 800 have become uninsured. … This is the legacy President Obama and his Democrats have left for us. If we give them more time, what else will they do to America?"

There’s a lot to digest here, but we’re going to look at two claims from the ad. In another item, we examined the claim that "since President Obama took full control of Washington ... every single day, more than 1,500 of our jobs have been lost." The one we’re looking at in this item is, "Since President Obama took full control of Washington," every day, 13,000 more people "have been put on food stamps."

We’ll start by noting that "food stamps" -- which provide qualifying, low-income Americans with vouchers to buy groceries -- have officially been known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, since October 2008, although many people still use the informal name.

Also, for the purposes of this fact check, we won’t be checking whether literally 13,000 people joined the food stamp rolls each and every day. Instead, we’ll be looking at the average rate of Americans joining food stamps over the course of the full three-year period to see whether that number is close to 13,000.

As we do with claims like this, we split our analysis into two parts. Are the numbers right? And is it fair to assess either credit or blame for those numbers to the target of the ad?

First, the numbers.

Obama took office on January 20, 2009, so we’ll look at the numbers for both January 2009 and February 2009. In January 2009, there were 31,983,716 Americans receiving food stamp benefits. In February 2009, the number was 32,332,622.

Fast-forward to the most recent month for which data was available when the ad was made -- November 2011 -- and the number of Americans then receiving food stamp benefits was 46,224,775. That means an increase of either 14,241,059 (if you use the January statistic) or 13,892,153 (if you use the February figure).

Assuming that three years means 1,095 days -- or 365 times 3 -- then the number of additional food stamp recipients per day of the Obama presidency was either 13,005 (using the January figure) or 12,687 (using the February figure). We consider either calculation to be fairly represented by the ad’s rounded-off estimate of 13,000.

So the ad is right on the numbers. What about the question of whether Obama deserves the blame?

The NRCC stands by its ad. "Leadership means taking responsibility, and President Obama bears responsibility for the consequences of his policies," said NRCC spokesman Nat Sillin.

Clearly, the rise in food stamps is a direct consequence of the most recent recession, which began more than a year before Obama took office. It’s impossible to know how high SNAP usage would have gone had the Republicans, rather than Obama, shaped policy in 2009 and 2010.

On the one hand, SNAP usage has continued to climb almost every month of the Obama presidency despite some signs of an economic recovery.

On the other hand, there is typically a lag before an upturn in the broader economy begins to show up in decreased SNAP usage. The previous high from 1994, for instance, came following a recession that officially ended in mid 1991 -- and that recession was much milder than the most recent one. This makes it harder to assign blame.

In addition to being influenced by the business cycle, enrollment and spending on means-tested programs such as food stamps is "quite sensitive to political decisions by Congress, state lawmakers, and state and local administrative agencies," said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution.

Indeed, the number of food stamp beneficiaries rose under President George W. Bush, partly because of more aggressive efforts to get eligible Americans to apply for benefits and partly because of rules changes that had the effect of broadening eligibility. The experts we spoke to agreed that both policies began under Bush but were retained by Obama.

The changes produced consistent increases in the number of average monthly beneficiaries. The number rose in seven out of the eight years of Bush’s presidency (the final two years of which had Congress under Democratic control). All told, the number of recipients rose by a cumulative 63 percent during Bush’s eight-year presidency, and the number of additional recipients per day during Bush’s eight years was 5,538 -- well below Obama’s rate, but still going up consistently during a period when the economy was relatively healthy.

We should also note that this ad uses the formulation, "since President Obama took full control of Washington." Obama -- or at least the Democrats -- can be said to have had full control of Washington, at least on a nominal basis, for two of those three years. But after the Republicans took over the House beginning in January 2011, they have had a share of the control as well.

Our ruling

The NRCC ad is right on the number of additional Americans using food stamps during Obama’s time in office. But it’s wrong to suggest that Obama’s "full control of Washington" -- to the extent he even had full control -- was to blame. The broader economic cycle and changes in how the program is administered have had a major impact as well. On balance, we rate the claim Half True.