There are good ways to cover how supply chain problems accompanied by inflation lead to rising prices on many products. CNN took another path with a human interest story on a middle-class family’s grocery budget. They took the fearmongering, sensationalist, we’re-not-gonna-offer-context-or-reliable-information path.
The Stotler family is pure media-bait. They’re white (because of course they are), they live in Texas (again, of course), and they have a whole bunch of kids, most of them adopted. CNN’s Evan McMorris-Santoro interviewed them about their grocery budget, accompanied by lots of footage of the family—including five or six kids who I am so sure are included on every supermarket run—going shopping.
Several commenters point out that this family may be benefiting from the expanded child tax credit, which gives families $250 per month per child under 18, with an extra $50 per month for children under six. That benefit phases out for families earning more than $150,000 a year.
Confirmed: The child tax credit is something CNN made a choice NOT to include in this story:
The week’s grocery total: $310. Krista Stotler estimates that they would have spent only $150 to $200 on a week’s groceries in March. That’s an astonishing amount! It’s also way out of line with data on rising grocery prices. It’s absolutely true that grocery prices have risen in recent months, but meat has risen the most—by 15.7% between August 2019 and September 2021. Dairy had gone up by 5.2% in that time. It’s a significant amount, but it’s hard to see how it’s doubling anyone’s grocery bills based on the available data. It would have been nice to see CNN dig into that.
One specific offered: “A gallon of milk was $1.99,” according to Krista Stotler, in a line tweeted by CNN’s Brianna Keilar. “Now it’s $2.79. Well, when you buy 12 gallons a week times four weeks, that’s a lot of money.”
Okay, first of all, hold up now. TWELVE GALLONS of milk every week? This is a large family but that is more than a gallon of milk per person. At that rate, maybe they should look into just buying a cow.
But there are issues more serious than this family’s milk-guzzling preferences. There are big questions about the numbers here. Nationally, even if you do not adjust for inflation, the average price of a gallon of milk has not been as low as $1.99 in more than 25 years. Milk prices may be well below the national average in the specific part of Texas where the Stotlers live, but even so, in January 2021, the average milk price in Dallas was $2.86 a gallon, and has now risen to $3.22. In Wichita, Kansas, the lowest average price for a gallon of milk across the cities the USDA tracks was $2.52. The average price for a gallon of milk in Wichita is $2.79. So Wichita went to the $2.79 a gallon Krista Stotler lamented—but it was an increase of just about one-third the increase she cited. Whatever the milk prices the Stotlers were paying in March, the increase they are claiming to have seen is well above the increases being seen most places.
CNN could also have gotten into the question of how milk prices are set. Milk pricing is highly regulated. Dairy farming is heavily subsidized by the government. Milk prices don’t just happen, and in general, in recent years, the “problem” for dairy farmers has been too much milk. If milk prices are rising, the question of why would be an interesting one, and people might learn a lot about how food gets to their tables and about how the economy works. Apparently that’s not as interesting as a family walking around a supermarket.
So, you know, choices were made here by CNN to uncritically air the Stotlers’ reported increases in pricing even though those were much, much higher than the available market data would suggest, and to leave off any context about pricing. And by talking about the price increase across 12 gallons per week for four weeks, it’s inflated yet again.
But choices were also made here by CNN to feature this family, a family that, sure, is looking for deals, but looking for deals at a Kroger, not at a discount store. They appear to drive a very large SUV and live in a house with a kitchen large enough to accommodate their large family, with a patio and a big old gas grill. It is relevant that middle-class families are feeling the pinch, but the fact that CNN presents this particular family’s struggles as a major story reflects so many heavily racialized assumptions about who deserves our sympathy and about whose grocery budgeting woes are evidence of a serious problem in the economy.
The federal minimum wage—which is the minimum wage in Texas—has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. I’m going to go ahead and guess that CNN could have found people in Texas for whom grocery price increases (even if they’re not actually 80 cents per gallon of milk) would be significantly more of a hardship. But those people are not seen as the ones whose stories are the relatable family-being-squeezed stories. When the media tells their stories, it’s more likely to be about policies like the minimum wage or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or about charity. The pure “this is our relatable struggle” reporting goes to families like the Stotlers, who are presumed to speak directly to CNN’s audience and to be generally above reproach (a large Black family, even with adopted children, would be much more likely to draw “if you can’t afford that many kids you shouldn’t have them” type of criticism).
CNN took just about the shallowest possible approach to the issue of grocery prices and the economic squeeze on families. It’s nothing against the Stotlers (however questionable their characterizations of price increases may be), but this story does not increase our knowledge or understanding of what’s going on in the U.S. economy today.