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Pulitzer winner dug beyond politics to explore impact of food stamps on American families

April 15, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Forty-seven million Americans rely on government assistance to feed their families each month. Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow set out to trace this lifeline in a series of stories that transcend the typical Washington debate. Gwen Ifill talks to Saslow, whose series won him the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.
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GWEN IFILL: Forty-seven million people, or one out of every seven Americans, rely on government assistance to feed their families each month. For them, the $78 billion federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, long known as food stamps, is a lifeline.

Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow set out to trace that lifeline in a series of stories that took him far beyond the typical Washington lightning rod arguments. Yesterday, he was awarded journalism’s highest award, the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting, for his work.

He joins me now.

Eli, congratulations, first of all.

ELI SASLOW, The Washington Post: Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.

We spend a lot of time talking about food insecurity in Washington, about legislation, and ideology. But you decided to go to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and Fort Pierce, Florida, and Greeneville, Tennessee, and McAllen, Texas, and even here in Washington, D.C., to get to the bottom of that story. Why?

ELI SASLOW: Because these are the places where people are still suffering.

And I think it’s easy here in D.C., or in a lot of places, to feel like the economy has recovered, the recession is over, people are doing better, the stock market is up. But the truth is, there is this lasting scar of the economic collapse, and it’s these 47 million people, one in seven Americans who are now dependent on the government for their food.

And it’s a program that’s grown four times in size in the last 10 years, and I think those are the people that are worth paying attention to.

GWEN IFILL: One of the stories — many of the stories you wrote talked about the boom economy around the 1st of the month, illustrated with great photographs by Michael Williamson at The Washington Post.

Talk — describe what the boom economy is that we’re talking about here.

ELI SASLOW: It’s really — I mean, food stamps have grown to the point where they’re sort of an economy unto themselves.

So, the 1st of the month is usually when people get their benefit. And for those people, the end of the month is a countdown to the 1st. Their refrigerators are getting more and more empty, they have less and less. The 1st comes, and they want to shop as quickly as they can.

So, in grocery stores across America, a lot of stores say they might do 20 percent of their business for the month just on that 1st day. Then the rest of the month is a slow trickle down. So it’s not just money that’s coming to these people who are on the food stamps, but entire towns are now dependent on the 1st of the month as sort of an economic boom.

GWEN IFILL: So, that lifeline is — goes to the entire community; it’s not just to individuals?

ELI SASLOW: Yes, first to the individuals, and then out to the grocery stores, and to the banks, and to the employees that those grocery stores hire.

And in some towns in the country, Woonsocket, Rhode Island, being one of them, 40 percent of the town receives food stamps, so this is something that a huge percentage of the population is dependent on. So, the 1st of the month is a windfall for Woonsocket.

GWEN IFILL: Do charities fill the gap, food pantries?

ELI SASLOW: They try, but the gap is immense.

Even the federal government says that, in a best-case scenario, food stamps give you enough money to pay for food for 17 days, so that leaves you with 13 days, even in a best-case scenario, that you have to take care of. And that’s a huge gap for food pantries and food banks to have to fill. And the truth is, right now, food banks and food pantries are totally overwhelmed. They’re hurting, too.

So that gap, they’re not quite making it.

GWEN IFILL: In the towns you talked about, you went from New England to a border town in Texas and to Florida, and you captured the idea that the people who are benefiting from this are elderly and children and everybody in between.

ELI SASLOW: Yes, it hits everybody.

Half the people who are on food stamps, half of that money goes to children. And so we’re talking about almost 25 million children who are eating in part based on this program. Elderly people are signed up in high numbers, but the truth is, they’re not signed up to where they should be. Only about 25 percent of elderly people who can sign up for food stamps sign up, because there is still sort of a stigma.

GWEN IFILL: Still a shame involved.

ELI SASLOW: Yes, some shame involved.

So there are people who go around and try to sort of talk to people about the program and inform them about the program, so that maybe they will sign up.

GWEN IFILL: Is Washington, as in official Washington, seriously tackling these issues?

ELI SASLOW: I think it’s — there are some people who are trying, but the truth is right now Washington is not set up super well to deal with complicated issues. And this one is maybe the most complex.

And one of the stories in the series is about a congressman who is trying to cut food stamps. And, in spending time with him, I learned that…

GWEN IFILL: Republican — Republican congressman.

ELI SASLOW: Republican Congressman Steve Southerland has — has his own reasons for wanting to do it.

And he has not yet spoken — when I was writing about him, he had not yet spoken to the main Democrat who is working on the food stamp program. So people aren’t really talking to each other. And that’s — it’s hard to sell things when you’re not — you’re not even beginning conversations.

GWEN IFILL: You know, as a reporter, a middle-class guy, you went into these people’s homes, you went into their lives, and you decided to tell this story from the inside out. How do you do that? How do you balance that as a journalist?

ELI SASLOW: It’s the privilege of the job.

And the kind of journalism that I do, which we refer to as narrative journalism, it’s — I might be writing about big issues and numbers, but I’m doing that by going into people’s lives and into their homes, and not just interviewing them for a few minutes or a few hours, but really shadowing them for sometimes a week or two at a time.

And that’s a lot to ask of people, especially when you’re there when — in those weeks where the fridge is more and more empty and when maybe their three or four kids are not having very much to eat or waiting for one — one meal a day that’s provided by a food bank.

It’s a huge act of courage for people to say, sure, come into my life, watch this happen, and write about it for all these people to read. And so what we try to do is, we try to honor that courage by doing a good job telling their stories and doing it fairly and honestly.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you did a great job. And the Pulitzer Prize recognized that.

Eli Saslow of The Washington Post, thank you.

ELI SASLOW: Thanks. Appreciate you having me. Thanks again.