USA Today Misleads on Spending Statistics

A recent—and misleading—USA Today headline states: “Federal aid programs expand at record rate.” The lede: “A sweeping expansion of social programs since 2000 has sparked a record increase in the number of Americans receiving federal government benefits such as college aid, food stamps and health care.”

Sounds like out-of-control spending. But there are a couple particulars the article buries towards the bottom. Most notably, being that the expansion of services is actually due to “a rise in the poverty rate from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2004, the most recent year.” That’s not quite how the newspaper presented the problem at first.

The Century Foundation explains why the entire article is a giant mess:

The front page graph shows enrollment in 25 “federal aid” programs is up 17 percent, increasing from 263 million to 307 million. That’s quite something, considering that there are only 300 million U.S. citizens. Oh, right, there is a note in agate type to the effect that some people participate in multiple programs. But what then is the logic behind combining numbers for age-dependent universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, to which recipients have paid dedicated taxes, with means-tested safety net programs? And if one person falling into poverty can add three, four, or five to the enrollment count of safety net programs, disproportionately elevating percentage increases, how are readers supposed to begin to make sense of what that number means?

USA Today then concludes with a quote from conservative Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who points out social services should, in fact, not be growing since unemployment is so low. The solution? Cuts! “It’s probably time to revisit food stamps and its goals and costs,” he said. But Gutknecht is basing his argument on faulty statistics—low unemployment is perfectly compatible with “growing” social services so long as growing means “people are signing up for multiple problems” rather than “more total people are signing up.”