Friday, February 12, 2016

Battling Misinformation, Part I: This Misleading Graph

Hey, check out this picture a friend of mine shared on Facebook:

This image is misleading, and I'll tell you why.

This graph fits with much of what we understand about our national budget: military spending dwarfs all other spending, and everything else has to do what it can with what's left. Also, though you may not necessarily know this, SNAP (the federal program people refer to as "food stamps") is indeed run by the Department of Agriculture, taking up the majority of the department's budget. Given these two facts (that this graph seems fairly accurate and that SNAP is accounted for in "food & agriculture"), the point being made by the text in that image seems to be telling.

However, this is not a graph of the federal budget. This is a graph of the discretionary spending budget. This isn't even a recent discretionary spending budget (currently military spending is ~52% of discretionary spending, education is up to 8%, and so on), but that's nitpicking. It's a fairly accurate representation of today's discretionary spending.

The total 2016 federal budget for the United States is about $3.59 trillion. Of that, less than 30% was for discretionary spending: $1.05 trillion. The rest, the other $2.54 trillion, is all for mandatory spending.

Mandatory spending consists of all federal spending required by law. Investments in education, science, and the military are not required by law; their funding exists at the pleasure of the government. The extent of their funding changes from year to year depending on tax revenue and what Congress and the President can agree on.

However, certain benefits are guaranteed to people by law, and the government is bound to cover these expenses: social security, medicare, veterans' benefits, and so on are guaranteed, and the government is not allowed to revoke those benefits without changing the law. To break it down: Social Security, unemployment, and labor expenses comprise 50% of the mandatory spending budget: $1.272 trillion, which is more than the entire discretionary spending budget combined, and dwarfing the military's $543 billion budget. Medicare and health services cover another 37% of the mandatory spending budget: $935 billion, again dwarfing the military budget. The rest of the mandatory spending includes veterans' benefits and interest on national debts.

And, as it turns out, SNAP is mandatory spending. Food stamps aren't actually accounted for in that misleading graph at all.

I don't have the data for SNAP expenses in 2016, but in 2014 it cost the country $74.1 billion, so presumably it hasn't changed too much one way or the other. $74 billion is certainly much less than military spending, but if SNAP's budget came out of discretionary spending it wouldn't be using up less than 1% of the budget. It would be closer to 7%, making it the most expensive discretionary program after the military and education.

Does this make SNAP an unnecessary expense? No, I don't think so. It's 2% of the total federal budget to guarantee that many people don't end up starving to death. That seems like a worthwhile cause to me.

However, I think the program should stand on its own or not by its merits. We shouldn't be spreading misinformation in an effort to keep the program untouched. Stick to the facts. Research before you share.

I'm not even sure the originator of the image was aware they were being misleading. But it is, and propaganda like this will only hurt their cause in the end.

2016 Federal Budget
SNAP budget

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