Thursday, May 19, 2011

It's time to stop demonizing food stamps -- May 19, 2011 column


Trying to save his presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich recanted his sharp critique of the House Republican budget plan for Medicare.

But he hasn’t backed off calling President Barack Obama “the most successful food stamp president in American history.”

Obama can take care of himself in name-calling contests. Gingrich, however, is really disparaging people who have to rely on food stamps to put dinner on the table, and they don’t have a soapbox. Yes, Ronald Reagan used food stamp recipients and welfare queens to make political points, but, hello, Newt, it’s not 1976.

Gingrich may think he’s the smartest man in any room, but running a 20th century campaign in the 21st century?

Today, about 44.2 million Americans receive food stamps -- not the 47 million Gingrich said last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” That’s one in seven of us – and not one in six, as Gingrich said. But let’s not quibble. Gingrich is correct that the food stamp rolls are at a record high. Something he didn’t mention: Nearly 80 percent of benefits go to households with children.

The former House speaker blames Obama and the Democrats for the explosive growth in participation, although tough economic times always result in spikes in food stamp usage. Changes enacted over President George W. Bush’s veto expanded eligibility for food stamps and formally renamed the program the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Also removing some of the stigma, recipients now use electronic cards to buy groceries.

Still, many Americans who are eligible don’t receive food assistance. The Agriculture Department estimates that one in three eligible people go unserved.

On the other hand, it bolsters critics when loony loopholes allow people to game the system, such as the $2 million lottery winner in Michigan in the news this week. Fortunately, such cases are rare.

During the 2010 congressional campaign, Gingrich urged Republicans to be the party of paychecks in contrast to Democrats, whom he called the party of food stamps. His construct ignores the bipartisan support food stamps enjoyed over the years. It suggests that Democrats prefer to put people on the dole than in jobs, which is an absurd and old-fashioned idea.

As for Gingrich, he fails to see how arrogant it is for someone with champagne tastes and a beer budget to tell the needy to tighten their belts. Politico reported that in 2005 and 2006 Gingrich owed Tiffany’s up to $500,000 on a revolving charge.

He may think he’s following in Reagan’s footsteps. In 1976, the former governor of California told a crowd in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that working people were rightly outraged when they stand in grocery lines behind “a strapping young buck” who is buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

Such racially charged language was unacceptable even then, but historian Dan T. Carter gives Reagan the benefit of the doubt, saying the phrase was an embarrassing “slip of the tongue” that Reagan never repeated. At the time, Reagan was trying to take the GOP presidential nomination from the more centrist Gerald Ford.

Carter is author of the 1996 book, “From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution 1963 to 1994.” He notes that in the 1990s, Gingrich dismissed criticism that his demonization of welfare mothers was racially motivated.

Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994 called for eliminating food stamps as an entitlement and turning the program into block grants to states. The current House budget plan would do just that – and cut the SNAP budget by $127 billion between 2012and 2021. The budget is dead in the Senate.

Sunday, on “Meet the Press,” Gingrich hotly denied that calling Obama the “food stamp president” was racist.

Host David Gregory showed a clip of Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia, telling Georgia Republicans as he kicked off his presidential bid, “You want to be a country that creates food stamps, in which case frankly Obama’s an enormous success. Or do you want to be a country that creates paychecks?”

Gregory asked Gingrich if the remark had racial content.

“Oh, come on, David!” Gingrich remonstrated.

“What did you mean?” Gregory persisted. “What was the point?”

“That’s bizarre,” Gingrich objected. Obama should be held accountable for the increase in the food stamp rolls, he said.

But calling Obama the “food stamp president”? That’s so last century.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Ms Mercer does a superb piece of writing to place Obama and Gingrich and the food stamps issue in historical and political perspective. Certainly, we can all agree that food stamps are necessary. No one wants to see Americans go hungry. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the system is abused and that freeriders must be removed from the program.

    It seems apparent that Gingrich's run for the Republican nomination is just about finished because he goofed on Obamacare and the Ryan budget plan, primarily.

    Thank you, Ms. Mercer for bringing us another interesting and timely issue and giving us the information we need to reach our own conclusions.