Fox News apologizes for getting a report on food stamp fraud so very, very wrong

Fox News took its war on the hungry to new lows by presenting false statistics about food stamp fraud as fact

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 30, 2016 3:58PM (EST)

          (AP/Allen Breed)
(AP/Allen Breed)

Fox News has pulled a Tuesday morning story in which they claimed that food stamp fraud is rampant and replaced it with a retraction.

"We reported that back in 2016 $70 million were wasted on food stamp fraud," Fox News contributor Abby Huntsman said. "That was actually incorrect. The latest information from 2009 to 2011 shows the fraud at 1.3 percent, which is approximately $853 million for each of those three years. Nationally food stamp trafficking is on the decline. So sorry about that mistake."

On Tuesday, Huntsman said that: "Food Stamp fraud is at an all-time high and some of the worst offenders this year have included a state lawmaker and a millionaire. This year it is estimated $70 million in taxpayer money was wasted on food stamp fraud. Is it time to end the program altogether?"

There are two aspects to this story that are almost too strange to believe. The first is the cruel logic of arguing that a program which feeds millions of people who might otherwise go hungry should be cut because less than 1 percent of its budget is used fraudulently. After all, food stamps cost $70.8 billion in the 2016 fiscal year, so $70 million would be a remarkably low figure.

In fact, it's unrealistically low, which brings us to the second problem, as identified by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones on Wednesday.

"Even if this is an all-time high, the Fox high command can't believe this is anything but a spectacular bureaucratic success," Drum wrote. "And it would be, if it were true. But it's not. If you look at inaccurate SNAP payments to states, the error rate since 2005 has decreased from 6 percent of the budget to less than 4 percent. However, this isn't fraud anyway: It's just an error rate, and most of the errors are eventually corrected. SNAP 'trafficking' — exchanging SNAP benefits for cash — is fraud, but it's been declining steadily too, from 3.8 percent in 1993 to 1.3 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which we have records)."

As it turns out, Drum's ability to do basic math was more reliable than the analysis of Fox News' brightest pundits.

"We are not quite sure where this came from," a USDA spokesperson told Erik Wemple of The Washington Post on Thursday. "We saw that there was as story on Breitbart. We have not issued a report on this recently. There is no new rate that we’ve published. So we’re not quite sure why they’re so interested in stirring this up."

For what it's worth, Wemple calculates that if food stamp fraud is at the same rate as 2011, it would equal roughly $910 million — 13 times more than Fox News claimed in its story, as well as $67 million more than Huntsman claimed in her retraction.

While it's good that Fox News has at least admitted to its errors on this story, it's impossible to know how many fiscal conservatives will cite the "food stamp fraud is rampant" argument based on their erroneous reporting to justify supporting politicians and laws that target our nation's most vulnerable citizens.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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