ON MONDAY night in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich won a standing ovation at the Fox News-Wall Street Journal debate by calling President Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history’’ and claiming that the program breeds dependency on the federal government among indolent minorities. He flatly rejected a moderator’s suggestion that he was propagating a vile racial stereotype. “We [Republicans] believe in work,’’ he said afterward. “We believe people should learn to work, and that we’re opposed to dependency.’’
Gingrich’s preferred means of instilling the work ethic that he claims is missing among young minorities is to assign them janitorial jobs.
For Gingrich, none of this is new - neither the attacks on food stamps, the suggestion that they mainly benefit African-Americans, nor the pious dismissal of his critics as craven elites reluctant to face hard truths. Back when he was still serving in Congress, Republicans routinely disparaged food stamp recipients as unscrupulous welfare queens in Cadillacs who were engaged, as Senator Jesse Helms put it, in “a multibillion-dollar shakedown of the American taxpayers.’’
In 1994, Gingrich sought to eliminate the federal food stamp entitlement as part of his Contract With America, using the same reasoning he employed on Monday night.
But while Gingrich’s attacks on food stamps and those who use them are essentially the same ones he and his colleagues were making two decades ago, the profile of the recipients has changed a great deal since then - and in a direction that Gingrich should applaud were his true motivation, as he claims, to encourage blacks to “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.’’
First, some facts: The number of food stamp recipients has indeed risen sharply, but this rise began under President George W. Bush and is largely attributable to the recession. Food stamps are an anti-poverty measure, so it’s no surprise that enrollment should rise when large numbers of people are out of work (the number of recipients dropped last month as the economy improved). But recession isn’t the only cause. A Bush administration initiative begun in 2002 dramatically increased participation rates among eligible households, from 48 percent to 72 percent in 2009. And a law signed by Ronald Reagan allows the federal government to provide food stamps to disaster victims (including those who are not poor), as it did last year after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.
The idea that the program caters mainly to blacks disinclined to work is wrong in several respects. By most estimates, African Americans make up about 33 percent of recipients. Overwhelmingly, food stamps go to children, the elderly, or the severely disabled. The biggest change over the last 20 years is that the share of working households with children has doubled to just under half of all recipients - a number that has held up during the recession.
“In the past, many people thought that if they were working they didn’t qualify for food stamps,’’ says Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But it’s really a work-support program that can boost the wages of participating families.’’ In fact, the benefit is designed to encourage work, diminishing only gradually as income rises so that recipients aren’t forced to choose between food stamps and work.
This has had the salutary effect not only of helping to feed the hungry but of lifting many working households out of poverty. Consider the case of a family of three whose single working member earns $10 an hour - roughly the wage of a janitor. According to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, if the janitor worked 30 hours a week, the food stamp benefit would increase the family’s income by 38 percent. Taking that additional income into account, the Census Bureau estimates that food stamps kept 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010.
In other words, far from breeding dependence, the program supports and encourages exactly the type of character-building work that Gingrich says he is trying to foster. A policy wonk and a notorious pedant, he surely understands this. So it’s all the more damning that his caricature of the program doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Joshua Green is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.