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Mention food stamps in a mixed political crowd and you’ll get a full buffet of opinions -- starchy, sugary, wilted and done to a turn -- about the people who use them.
Exhibit A is the array of reader comments on Cleveland.com after a story there, and in The Plain Dealer on Dec. 3, described efforts in Congress to cut the federal food safety net.
Sorry, but you’ll get no dish here about the habits or consumption patterns of Americans using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (now delivered in the form of an electronic card rather than with stamps or coupons). Instead, PolitiFact Ohio is using this as an opportunity to revisit a claim from the food stamp story, made by Anne Goodman, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foodbank. The food bank provides food for 450 meal sites, shelters and pantries, whose clients include Ohioans on SNAP whose food budgets run out before the end of each month.
Goodman said that while national SNAP enrollment grew by 70 percent between 2007 and 2011, unemployment jumped by a much higher rate, 94 percent. That shows, she said, "that SNAP is working as it was intended. It was designed to ensure that families have food when they need a helping hand."
PolitiFact Ohio was curious about those figures. Did food stamp growth really lag unemployment as the economy turned sour.
A cursory look at labor statistics showed she was in the ballpark. But the data, and thus the rhetoric, can change depending on the months reported or even the dates when the data is released, so we asked for more.
Goodman provided three sources of information.
The first was the latest SNAP Annual Summary from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP. The summary provided data from 2007 to 2011, a five year window that includes pre-recession data for a baseline and carries into recovery. 2011 also is the most current year for which statistics are available.
The summary shows annual participation, measured in fiscal years. In 2007, there were 26.316 million individual SNAP recipients. In 2011, there were 44.709 million.
That comes to a growth rate of 69.89 percent. With almost no rounding, that’s the same as 70 percent. So Goodman was accurate on that figure.
We should note that these are annual averages. As the article in The Plain Dealer on food stamps said Dec. 3, participation was as high as 47.1 million at one point, in August, 2011. That figure came from another Agriculture Department set of data, tracking SNAP participation by the month.
The second source that Goodman sent us was a set of U.S. Census Bureau data on economic characteristics of Americans. This was from the bureau’s American Community Survey, and it estimated the percentage of individuals on food stamps was 7.7 percent in 2007, and 13 percent in 2011.
That’s a 68.8 percent growth rate, or 1 percent lower than the figure from the Agriculture Department. The difference is likely due to a difference in methodology: The census asks questions of households, and the Agriculture Department has actual figures from the food stamp program, since it runs it. With the numbers so close, it makes little difference here.
So Goodman’s numbers were good on food stamp growth. But what about unemployment growth?
That leads to the third set of data she cited, this from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau, a division of the Labor Department, tracks the number and percentage of people in the workforce who are unemployed.
In 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.6 percent.
In 2011, it was 8.9 percent.
That’s a 93.48 percent rise. Goodman put it at 94 percent -- within a percentage point of the actual figure. We checked BLS data using a different table -- the government agency allows you to use its information in different formats -- and got the same result as Goodman.
These, too, were annual averages, and some months were higher, some lower. If you were to pick certain months in those years to find high and low points, you could show an even bigger leap in unemployment -- as high as the 105 percent rise between May 2007 and May 2011. But by using the more conservative annual average, it becomes clear that Goodman did not cherry pick the data to show extremes.
Her comments to The Plain Dealer, and an op-ed column on food aid that she wrote for the newspaper on Dec. 2, were not the first time these numbers have been cited. Goodman mentioned them when she appeared before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee on March 7 to discuss the need for food assistance.
And Feeding America, a national charity, has cited them in its materials.
Goodman’s figures check out entirely.
On the Truth-O-Meter, her claim rates True.
Anne Goodman, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foodbank, interview with The Plain Dealer, Nov. 28, 2012
The Plain Dealer via Cleveland.com, "Food stamp cuts look inevitable, advocates and Democrats fear," by Stephen Koff, Dec. 3, 2012 (published online Dec. 2, 2012)
U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation and costs"
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Monthly SNAP participation tables
U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 American Community Survey, Selected Economic Characteristics
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "American status of civilian noninstitutional population, 1941 to date"
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment rate, from Databases, Calculators and Tables, accessed Dec. 4, 2012
The Plain Dealer via Cleveland.com, "Federal food aid is backbone of local hunger relief efforts," by Anne C. Goodman, guest column, Dec. 2, 2012 (published online Dec. 1, 2012)
Written testimony of Anne Goodman before Senate Agriculture Committee, March 7, 2012
Feeding America, description of SNAP program
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