That safety net is really a hammock


A NUMBER of years ago, a story burst upon the nationa press and quickly achieved the status of "national outrage." The item -- that a significant portion of America's elderly were so impecunious that they resorted to eating dog food on a regular basis to fulfill their dietary needs -- was exactly the sort of story about the privations of poverty that the national media love.

But a few months after the dog food story appeared, the New York Times attempted to track down the source of the information. All of the television people had quoted it, as well as the national magazines. But it turned out that everyone was quoting everyone else. At last, after painstaking research, the reporter came upon the doctor or academic (I don't recall which) who had first made the assertion, and he admitted that he had no evidence.

That story is reminiscent of the uncritical acceptance by many of the late Mitch Snyder's claim that there are 3 million homeless. No reputable study has ever found more than 500,000.

More recently, another very similar piece of disinformation worked its way through the national press. This time, the subject was hunger among America's children. In 1991, a story surfaced on all the networks that a "new report" had found that one in every eight children in the United States "goes to bed hungry." This datum was seized upon by advocacy groups to buttress their case for more government handouts, specifically greater funding for food and nutrition programs for the poor.

Well, it turned out that this hunger figure was based on an extremely informal, non-scientific survey by an advocacy group calling itself the Food Research and Action Committee. Long associated with lobbying efforts on behalf of food stamps and other programs, the group circulated questionnaires asking, among other things, "Do your children ever say they are hungry because there is not enough food in your house?" What parent of a teen-ager hasn't heard that lament?

The FRAC story is contained in a superb article about the politics of the food stamp program in the Jan. 3, 1993, edition of Insight magazine. Written by Shawn Miller, the article illuminates the strange ratchet effect whereby members of Congress, federal agencies and advocacy groups first lament the number of eligible citizens who are not receiving food stamps, then increase enrollment through a variety of "reforms" and finally denounce the high enrollment as evidence of how miserable life is in the United States.

In the past, use of food stamps tracked closely with the economy. But that is no longer true. Though unemployment leveled off two years ago, food stamp use has continued to soar. In the United States today, one in 10 Americans participates.

Advocates for the food stamp program like to imagine an America teeming with badly nourished poor people "desperate" (Sen. Pat Leahy's word) for food to put on the table. But that is not reality today. A Department of Agriculture study found no difference in the diets of those who used food stamps and those who were eligible and did not. Another USDA study found no evidence that malnutrition was a significant problem among the poor. (And where it is a problem, it's a safe bet that it isn't economic.)

That one in 10 Americans accepts food stamps is not proof that hunger is rampant. It is proof that the advocates have been successful in creating not a safety net, but a hammock.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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