Another Way to Look at Food Stamps?

17 Jan 2012

written by Carolyn

wheat field 1

Disclaimer: I am not a statistician. I welcome those who are to challenge both the statistics I cite and my analysis of them.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (still referred to as the “food stamp program” despite the fact that it covers more than food stamps) has swelled to nearly 45 million participants, at a cost of $75 billion. Republican presidential candidates have focused on the food stamp program during the 2012 GOP primary season as evidence of President Obama’s development of a welfare state at the expense of job creation.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, blacks comprise only 12% of the U.S. population, yet make up 26% of SNAP recipients. These figures are sometimes cited by conservatives to argue that blacks are “oversubscribed” in the food stamp program relative to their numbers in the overall U.S. population – notwithstanding that blacks are hardly the largest recipients of food stamps. 49% of SNAP benefit recipients are white, and 20% of recipients are Hispanic.

But maybe there’s another way to look at the numbers.

A CNN “In America” feature about Dr. Martin Luther King’s anti-poverty program, quoted data from the nonprofit organization Feeding America, as well as an Indiana University white paper that was prepared at the request of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. Those figures show the following:

* According to Census data, 27.4% of African Americans lived in poverty in 2010, compared to 26.6% of Latinos, 12.1% of Asians, and about 10% of whites.

* Using the official federal definition, 15.1% of the population – or 46.2 million people – are living in poverty .

By U.S. Census Bureau poverty thresholds, a family of four earning $22,314 or less is considered to be living in poverty. Comparing the percentage of blacks living in poverty (27%), to the percentage of black Americans (12%), it is clear that if African-Americans are oversubscribed to anything, it’s poverty. That 26% of the people who receive SNAP benefits – which includes not only food stamps, but school lunch programs, among others – are black, appears consistent with the figures showing 27% of blacks living in poverty. Indeed, if one compares participation in the food stamp program to poverty levels, it appears white people are “oversubscribed” to the food stamp program, since less than 10% of white Americans are living in poverty, yet 49% of SNAP benefit recipients are white. If the figures were reported this way, perhaps Republicans would stop talking about food stamps as a black people problem, and might stop talking about food stamps altogether.

Now look at the size of the SNAP program compared to the percentage of Americans living in poverty. According to figures on the SNAP website, about 45 million Americans currently receive SNAP assistance. As noted above, 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty. The number of poor Americans and the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits are pretty consistent. It seems the food stamp program is working as intended to help feed poor Americans. If that’s true, perhaps President Obama should reframe Gingrich’s crowning him the ”food stamp President” as an honor.

Regardless of how one looks at the numbers, if politicians – whether Republican or Democrat – want to reduce the size of the food stamp program, they should stop distorting the issue as one of lazy blacks seeking to live off other people’s money. If black people are disproportionately receiving food stamps, it’s because they’re disproportionately poor.

Poverty and hunger are American issues. America has a poverty problem, not a food stamp problem. Too often, we dismiss the problems of the poor by making sweeping generalizations from a safe distance – or make narrow judgments when we are forced to deal with the poor up close. Clearly, the increase in the food stamp program is a symptom of what ails the American economy – job loss and income inequality.

Instead of accusing those who complain about income inequality of “income envy,” politicians should focus on putting the long-term unemployed – not to mention the never-employed – to work. I agree with those who feel that work, not welfare, is the long-term solution to reducing poverty – but people can’t work if there are no jobs, or if they’re not qualified for the jobs that exist. Politicians on both sides of the aisle should be taking action to improve education and job training, attract jobs and encourage entrepreneurship. A smaller food stamp program would be but one logical result of those efforts.

Radical, I know.

23 Comments on Another Way to Look at Food Stamps?

  1. Amy Gutman

    Right on, Carolyn–I will share this.

  2. eshowoman

    It makes political points to emphasize that blacks are lazy, dependent & criminal. Publicizing the fact 63% of African Americans are above the poverty line would not appeal to racist whites who need to see black as subhuman to make themselves feel better.

  3. Carolyn

    Racial hatred is a learned behavior. Perpetuating the idea that the blame for what ails America falls squarely on the shoulders of black folks is divisive and keeps this country from moving forward. It has to stop.

  4. CaliGirlED

    Well lookie lookie!…According to the Census data, The U.S. population in 2010 was 308,745,538 people. This means that there were 37,049,464 Blacks (12%), 50,325,522.69 Hispanics/Latinos (16.3%) and 223,531,769 Whites (72.4%). Nearly 45,000,000 people received SNAP benefits; 11,700,000 were Black, 9,000,000 were Hispanic/Latino and 22,050,000 were white. Of the number of people living in poverty; 84,596,277 were Black, 82,126,313 were Hispanic/Latino and 30,874,553 are white….What does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? That 13.8% of Blacks who live in poverty receive benefits; 10.9% of Hispanics/Latinos and 71.4% of Whites. Which boils down to Blacks and Latinos are toughing it out and not receiving benefits at overwhelming higher rates than Whites. Hmmm….

    Carolyn, is right, “If the figures were reported this way, perhaps Republicans would stop talking about food stamps as a black people problem, and might stop talking about food stamps altogether.”

  5. Joseph

    Very well done. If anyone wants to tackle the real problem, especially any of the GOP candidates, bring it on. Otherwise it is time to stop with the silly race-baiting.

  6. Jason

    I agree with your points, but you did misinterpret the statistics for correlation the number of black recipient of SNAP benefits to the number of blacks living in poverty.

    You stated that “26% of blacks receive SNAP benefits”. This does not have the same meaning as ’26% of SNAP benefit recipients are black’, which is what would come from the figures you cited earlier. Thus, this figure does not provide the purported close correlation to “27% of blacks living in poverty”.

    However, I’m sure that the figure is close, and I do agree with your reasoning. I’m sure that you could extrapolate the actual percentage of SNAP beneficiaries who are black, which would then yield a more technically correct analysis.

  7. RR


    I don’t think Conservatives would debate the fact that blacks are disproportionately poor and consequently disproportionately represented on the welfare rolls. They are disturbed by the disproportionality itself. Like crime and illegitimacy, poverty in the U.S. is a disproportionately black problem. And it’s not as if the problems of blacks have been ignored. We’ve been fighting these problems for about fifty years now. What bothers Conservatives (and many Liberals for that matter) is the intractability of the problem. No one has come up with a good solution regarding the issue of poverty, except to note that it is a problem and suggest that income redistribution is needed. What is your suggestion?

  8. Carolyn

    I agree with you, and if the statement reads that way, it’s a clear error. I’ll have to take another look at the post, but I certainly didn’t mean that 26% of blacks receive SNAP benefits – I meant 26% of SNAP recipients are black. If I typed it wrong, I’ll fix it. One of my other commenters crunched the numbers, which appeared to show that a sizeable portion of the blacks who live below the poverty line don’t receive SNAP benefits. Impossible to know if that’s because they’re ineligible for one reason or another, or they’ve just chosen to do without the benefits, but the point is, correlating the number of blacks in the US population with the percentage of black people receiving food stamps, and concluding this means that blacks are “oversubscribed,” is nonsense. I appreciate your comments.

  9. CaliGirlED

    Carolyn, while the way the percentages were stated could be misinterpreted, you stated that, “blacks make up 26% of SNAP recipients”, and not that “26% of blacks are SNAP recipients”. Jason misquoted you. I crunched the numbers because whether or not these facts are true, I wanted to apply the percentages to the numbers (what it all boils down to), which I went to the Census website to get. I put on my “Algebra” hat and figured out what was missing. The total population and the percentage that are White. Jason corrected you incorrectly. The 26% and 27% when applied to the appropriate numbers do purport a correlation. The connection shows that Blacks are not the welfare system problem. But this is exactly why the percentages and numbers (or lack thereof) are thrown around the way they are. Because most people won’t take the time to do the math and realize what is true. And I’ll raise my hand and say that I don’t always take the time either, even when I know what’s stated looks a bit off.

  10. RozB

    It is so much easier to use generalizations and stereotypes when your target audience would rather not do the research and question some of these overblown statements.

    Gingrich, and those of his ilk, are trying to position themselves as this savior that has all the answers. His trying to appeal by using “dog whistle” terminology, and making statements that he welcomes to the chance to attend NAACP forums to provide us with the “gospel” on why we are so poor is just a tactic to show his base “See? I keep trying to help these people, but they just won’t listen. Blacks need to step aside and let a White man drive again.”

    I would love to see this post on Huffpost and any of the other mainstream media sites. But because it breaks it down so well, we probably won’t…

  11. Corey

    You facts are correct, but your bias is false. You automatically assume that when ever republicans refer to the president as the “Food Stamp President” or if the candidates get into debate over food stamps, that they are talking about black people. I am a black man, and I honestly believe there is a big work ethic problem in the black community. But there is also a work ethic problem across the board! It’s starting at an early age because kids these days believe they deserve more than what they should. If you say there isn’t you’re just practicing “blind-deaf-mutism” and would rather stay in your box.

    There is a food stamp problem in general across the board, but for some reason, people can’t seem to grasp the point that its a combination of both sides (left and right) that messed all that up. Quit pointing your fingers with a bias and realize the truth.

  12. Ruth

    You got a really useful blog. I have been here reading for about an hour. I am a newbie and your success is very much an inspiration for me.

  13. Bud

    Did Newt say black or African-American? He said, “Food stamp
    President.” This means to me… food stamp recipients have increased greatly under President Obama…and I am sure all presidents.” I am saddened anyone has to get food stamps. The government has no business doling out food stamps. I think this belongs to charities or family. However, this government has grown so large and is spending so much money (taxes) 45 million people cannot afford to buy food but must look for a “handout” from big brother. This “cradle to grave” distribution is bringing us all under the thumb of the political elites and needs to stop! Government has become a tool for social engineering. This is sick and sad!

  14. Carolyn

    No, I’m not assuming, out of bias, that whenever Republicans get into debates about food stamps, they are talking about black people. I am stating that as a fact, based on the words used by the GOP presidential candidates.s. Santorum said that he doesn’t want to give black people other people’s money, as if taxes paid by black Americans don’t also support these programs. Gingrich said he wanted to go to the NAACP and talk about food stamps. If you, a black man, didn’t hear any of that, perhaps you should listen a little more closely next time – or look up their actual words. And in what “black community” is there a big work ethic problem? You do a disservice to the millions of hard-working black Americans when you make a gross generalization like that. Is a lack of work ethic an issue in some communities? Yes, absolutely. As you stated above – there’s a work ethic problem across the board. It exists in both wealthy communities and poor ones. Most importantly, the problem is not limited to “the black community.” So let’s not single out any one community when discussing these issues. The solutions may need to be tailored to the needs of different communities, but as you said – these are problems that exist across the board, and thus should be discussed as such.

  15. RR


    Santorum does have a point. Whites, on average, pay more in taxes than blacks do. It is effectively a wealth transfer from people, mostly white, to other people, disproportionately black. As I stated previously, it is the disproportionality that bothers whites.

  16. Lewis Barlow

    My observation:

    Many Republicans believe anyone without a job or living in poverty are lazy and hurt the economy. When there are limited number of jobs available, the unemployed and those lacking job experience will most likely not find a job. Most of those people are poor. College grads with M.A.s can’t even find jobs in today’s economy.

  17. asdf

    Just one more way to make excuses for the CHRONIC FAILURES of blacks.
    If 26% of those receiving food stamps are blacks, that’s 1/4 of all negroes in the US. ONE FORTH!!!!

    They’re a bunch of losers, whiners, complainers, and crime committing inhabitants. Not even MLK’s message of “non violence” reaches them.

  18. Carolyn

    I feel very sorry for you, especially the fact that you obviously failed math. Using your logic, 3/4 of all whites in the U.S. are on food stamps, too. If you want to understand how math actually works, read some of the other comments. No time for idiots here.

  19. YASHUA

    Hmmm, this is something i already knew,being i have family that works in DSS (gov asst programs).
    And they always say “it’s more whites who come in an apply for goverment assistance then blks.”
    Judging by the census and snap statistics and by who they see apply, the accusation must be correct.

  20. Tom

    49% of the snap participants are white, out of 46 million total participants. Thats roughly 23 million white people on food stamps, out of 237.000.000 white people in the country , it means 10 % of the white population participate, if you run the numbers for blacks, compromising 26% of snap, its about 11.5 million black people out of a total of 40 million black people in the country , about 28.7 %. this shows a disproportionate amount of black people on welfare compared to whites and hispanics, however in the end its a problem for the entire country regardless , and we need politicians to raise awareness to the issue, the amount of people participating in the program is increasing at an alarming rate, and it doesnt matter who or what color compromises the majority of the people participating, lets find a solution!!

  21. Tom

    Comprise and comprising should have been corrected in my prior entry, i didnt notice until it was to late that i typed compromise and compromising

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