The NYT's responsibility for Republican efforts to cut food stamps may not be immediately obvious, but on closer examination the truth comes out. Look at the basic story: the Republicans want to cut the budget for food stamps. Their proposed cuts don't amount to much in terms of the entire federal budget but they are likely impose considerable hardship to the people affected. If the Republican cuts go through, between 2-4 million very low income people would lose benefits that average $160 a month.

These cuts are likely to be a serious hardship to the people affected. But what do they mean to the rest of us? The answer is not much. No doubt you heard the New York Times and other media outlets reporting that the Republican cuts would reduce projected federal spending by 0.086 percent over the next decade.

If you don't recall hearing that one you probably are not alone. This number has not been featured very prominently in the news reporting on the proposed cuts. Instead, the New York Times and other news outlets routinely refer to the proposed $40 billion in cuts.

This matters a lot. The reality is no one has a clue what $40 billion in spending means over the next decade. There are probably 5-10 thousand budget wonks with their nose in these numbers who can make sense out of hearing that the Republicans want to cut $40 billion in spending over ten years. For just about everyone else, the NYT and other news outlets are just saying that the Republicans want to cut a REALLY BIG NUMBER from food stamps over the next decade.

This is not a debatable point. Polls consistently show that people have no clue as to the total size of the budget. And they have little idea what are the major spending categories that absorb most of their tax dollars. I have raised this issue with many budget reporters and not one has ever tried to claim that any substantial portion of their readers had a clear idea of what budget numbers meant, especially when expressed over 5-10 year periods.

We even got a wonderful demonstration of this problem when Paul Krugman mistakenly took a 10-year proposed cut in food stamps as being a 1-year proposed cut and made it the basis for a NYT column. How many NYT readers are more knowledgeable about the budget and used to dealing with large numbers than Paul Krugman? If the NYT's reporting on the budget can mislead Paul Krugman what does it do for the more typical reader?

By deliberately choosing to report budget numbers in ways that are meaningless to the overwhelming majority of its readers the NYT is ensuring that almost everyone is ignorant of the issues at stake. (I am picking on the NYT for the simple reason that they are the leaders. It is far and away the best newspaper in the country. If it changed its practices in this area, it is virtually certain that most other news outlets would quickly follow suit.)

It is this ignorance that makes the SNAP debate possible. There is no doubt that much of the motivation for the cuts has little to do with saving tax dollars, but is rather about kicking people in the face who are viewed as lazy, undeserving, and different. But to sell this line to anyone other than a relatively small minority of hardcore haters, it is necessary to convince people that real money is stake.

How many Republicans in Congress would be out there yelling about the need to save 0.086 percent of the budget by stopping no good cheats from getting food stamps? As much as people might want to stop these no good cheats from getting food stamps, most people would probably think that their representatives in Congress should be dealing with more important issues. Maybe they should be talking about something that affects at least one tenth of one percent of the budget.

It is absurd that we are having a major national debate on an issue when almost no one understands what is at stake. The reality is that we are talking about cuts that could be quite painful to a relatively limited group of low income people but will have no noticeable impact on the budget over the next decade. The fact that most people do not recognize this fact can be blamed on the New York Times and the manner in which they choose to report on the budget.

Note: Typos corrected.

Further Note on Proofreading -- folks, I know that I often have many typos in these posts. They are often written quickly. Also, I happen to be the worst proofreader of my own writing. I read what I had intended to write, not what appears in print. Several readers regularly notify me of mistakes they find. I appreciate this and try to make corrections as quickly as possible. This is really the best I can do. We cannot assign a person to proofread everything I post, especially when many of the posts are at weird hours, and on weekends and holidays.