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Former U.S. Rep. Allen West, a staunchly conservative Republican who represented a Florida district for one term, recently sent a tweet that resurrected one of the themes used by Mitt Romney and others during the 2012 presidential campaign -- the idea that there are makers and takers in America.
Here’s what West tweeted: "More Americans receive food aid than work in private sector. ‘Fundamental transformation?’ Nope, nation destruction."
The tweet linked to an article in the conservative website CNSNews that provided data to support his claim. The CNSNews article cited a report by the inspector general of the Agriculture Department, which operates most federal food-assistance programs, as well as employment data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The inspector general’s report said that "FNS estimates that a total of 101 million people currently participate in at least one of its programs."
The CNSNews article compared this figure to BLS data showing that there were "97,180,000 full-time private-sector workers in 2012."
However, we see a number of problems with this comparison, and how West framed it.
The employment figure is likely higher than 97 million
We looked at the BLS figures for April 2013 so we could match them to the most recently available figures for participation in food-assistance programs, which are from that month.
According to BLS, 113.6 million Americans had a private-sector job during April 2013. That’s more than the 101 million figure for food assistance.
The CNSNews number -- 97 million -- was smaller because it subtracted part-time workers and used 2012 data, neither of which were qualifications made by West.
The food-assistance number is likely lower than 101 million
For means-tested benefits such as these, it seems plausible that an individual who qualifies for one program may also qualify for another. It would be odd if at least some fraction of children qualifying for a free or reduced-price school breakfast wouldn’t also qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch, and if some of the these same children didn’t also qualify for food stamps at home.
In fact, studying overlap was actually the whole purpose of the inspector general’s report. It concluded that "the potential for overlap and duplication exists" among the department’s nutrition programs.
But participation in all of these categories is counted separately. No steps were taken to avoid double- or triple-counting people who receive more than one type of food assistance when the 101 million figure was calculated, an approach confirmed to PolitiFact by Agriculture Department spokeswoman Jessica Milteer. "Many participants in our programs are eligible to take advantage of more than one nutrition assistance program," she said.
Here's the breakdown of participation in the food-assistance programs listed on the Agriculture Department’s website:
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps)
National School Lunch Program
School Breakfast Program
Food aid for adult and child care
Highest month, fiscal 2012
Summer Food Service
Highest month, fiscal 2012
Indian Reservation Food Program
All year, fiscal 2012
Commodity Supplemental Food Programs (non-elderly)
All year, fiscal 2012
Commodity Supplemental Food Programs (elderly)
All year, fiscal 2012
Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program
All year, fiscal 2011
WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition
All year fiscal 2011
This is quite close to the 101 million cited in the inspector general’s report. If efforts had been taken to weed out overlap between the programs, the figure would be much lower. (Unfortunately, the inspector general’s report didn’t provide an estimate of how much overlap exists.)
The comparison isn’t especially enlightening
The universe of people who could potentially receive food aid is the entire U.S. population. But the universe of people who could potentially hold a private-sector job consists only of those 16 years old and over. And one could easily make that universe smaller by excluding those who are 16 or 17 (and who are supposed to be in school) or those older than 65 (who have reached retirement age).
If you adjust for the differences in the size of these universes, one could easily come to the opposite conclusion than the one West offered.
Using the 101 million figure for food aid, which as we noted is likely overstated, means that about 33 percent of the U.S. population receives food assistance.
By contrast, about 47 percent of people age 16 and up work in the private sector. If you restrict it to people age 18 to 64, the percentage working in the private sector rises to 59 percent.
So, the percentage of working-age people with private-sector jobs is at least twice as high as the percentage of Americans who receive food assistance -- the opposite conclusion to the one West drew.
And a final note: The categories of "employed in the private sector" and "receiving food aid" are not mutually exclusive. According to the department, "over 30 percent of (food stamp) households had earnings in 2011, and 41 percent of all (food stamp) participants lived in a household with earnings."
West tweeted that "more Americans receive food aid than work in (the) private sector."
However, the data West used appears to have undercounted the number of people with a private-sector job and overcounted the number of people receiving food aid. In addition, the comparison isn’t really apples to apples. We rate the claim False.
Allen West, tweet, July 8, 2013
Agriculture Department Office of Inspector General, "Overlap and Duplication in Food and Nutrition Service’s Nutrition Programs," June 13, 2013
Agriculture Department, monthly participation in SNAP, accessed July 9, 2013
Agriculture Department, monthly participation in child nutrition programs, accessed July 9, 2013
Agriculture Department, monthly participation in WIC, accessed July 9, 2013
Agriculture Department, monthly participation in food-distribution programs, accessed July 9, 2013
Agriculture Department, "WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program Fact Sheet," accessed July 9, 2013
Agriculture Department, "Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program Fact Sheet," accessed July 9, 2013
Agriculture Department, "Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2011 Summary," November 2012
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey" (main index page), accessed July 9, 2013
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National)" (main index page), July 9, 2013
U.S. Census Bureau, "Population by Sex and Selected Age Groups: 2000 and 2010," accessed July 9, 2013
CNSNews, "101M Get Food Aid from Federal Gov’t; Outnumber Full-Time Private Sector Workers," July 8, 2013
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, July 9, 2013
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, economist at George Washington University, July 9, 2013
Email interview with Jessica Milteer, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, July 10, 2013
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