Misleading Comparisons: Examples

SNAP vs Non-SNAP Household Food Choices:

Original Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/well/eat/food-stamp-snap-soda.html?_r=0

Actual Government Report: https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/foods-typically-purchased-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap-households

Observations: (By Joe Soss)

The story hammers away at the idea that “the No.1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which account for about 10 percent of the dollars they spend on food.” Milk is No. 1 among non-SNAP households, we’re told, not soft drinks. At the start of the article, O’Connor frames these and other alleged facts with a quote that tells readers what SNAP really is: “SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry.” The story doubles down on this misleading image of the program by ending with a discussion of how the big soda companies lobby to keep the SNAP funds flowing — and with a quote asserting, “This is the first time we’ve had confirmation that this massive taxpayer program is promoting all the wrong kinds of foods.”

I want to be clear here: This is bullshit. It’s a political hack job on a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the NYT has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page. Even if we relied solely on O’Connor’s political massaging of the numbers, we’d have to conclude that 90 percent of what people buy with SNAP is NOT soda (which O’Connor says makes up 10 percent of purchases).

But what does the USDA report actually say? Strangely, no link to the report is provided in the story, online or in print. You have to look through agency reports on your own if you want to find it. Here’s the link if you want to go read it for yourself: https://www.fns.usda.gov/…/…/SNAPFoodsTypicallyPurchased.pdf

Spoiler Alert: The report does not say that SNAP changes what people buy at the grocery — and that includes encouraging them to buy soda — and the report’s findings differ considerably from the portrayal Anahad O’Connor presents in the NYT. And here again, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that O’Connor missed details buried in tables; I’m saying O’Connor chose to ignore the report’s major findings and cherry-picked a few facts to build a misleading case. Here are the top three items in the report’s own summary of its major findings, reported in an attention-grabbing, color-shaded box:

1. There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized. Similar to most American households:

– About 40 cents of every dollar of food expenditures by SNAP households was spent on basic items such as meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread.
– Another 20 cents out of every dollar was spent on sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.
– The remaining 40 cents were spent on a variety of items such as cereal, prepared foods, dairy products, rice, and beans

2. The top 10 summary categories and the top 7 commodities by expenditure were the same for SNAP and non-SNAP households, although ranked in slightly different orders.

3. Less healthy food items were common purchases for both SNAP and non-SNAP households. Sweetened beverages, prepared desserts and salty snacks were among the top 10 summary categories for both groups. Expenditures were greater for sweetened beverages compared to all milk for both groups, as well.

Later, the report adds these bullet points to its summary, in a separate “pay attention” box:

4. Overall, there were few differences between SNAP and non-SNAP household expenditures by USDA Food Pattern categories. Expenditure shares for each of the USDA Food Patter categories (dairy, fruits, grains, oils, protein foods, solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS), and vegetables) varied by no more than 3 cents per dollar when comparing SNAP and non-SNAP households.

5. Protein foods represented the largest expenditure share for both household types, while proportionally more was spent on fruits and vegetables than on solid fats and added sugars, grains or dairy.

No fair reading of this report and its tables can support the portrayal O’Connor gives in the NYT article. Even the central fact that the article is built around — the claim that soda makes up 10 percent of purchases — seems to be ginned up. Exhibit 6 of the report states that soft drinks made up 5.44 percent of SNAP household expenditures. To get the 10 percent figure, my guess is that O’Connor looked to Exhibit 5, which incorporates soft drinks into the broader summary category of all sweetened beverages. That category makes up 9.25 percent of SNAP household purchases, ranking just below meat, poultry, and seafood (19.19 percent). So, the report’s soft drink estimate of 5.44 percent gets inflated to 9.25 percent by equating soda with the broader summar category of sweetened beverages, and then, 9.25 gets rounded up to 10 percent for good measure. (We really need to do a better job teaching rounding skills in school, I guess.)

And that claim about milk, not soda, being No. 1 among non-SNAP households? O’Connor is just trying to score a point based on the slimmest of rank-order differences: For non-SNAP households, Exhibit 6 reports that fluid milk products make up 4.03 percent of purchases while soft drinks make up 4.01 percent. Two one-hundredths of a percentage point. That’s what O’Connor uses to construct non-SNAP households as the normal milk people and contrast them with the bad soda people on SNAP.

We deserve better than this from the New York Times. Just as political attacks on social protections are on the rise, the NYT decides to pour fuel on the fire with a deeply misleading front page story. O’Connor panders to the worst stereotypes of “welfare” in this article, telling people who imagine the worst about food stamps that they’ve been right all along. Facts be damned.