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On Food Stamps, Gingrich Hasn't a Clue | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

On Food Stamps, Gingrich Hasn't a Clue

When Newt Gingrich derided President Obama as “the food stamp president,” he was using the same old GOP race-baiting tactics that brought us Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” and Willy Horton.

But he also revealed something unintentional about his already imploding candidacy: Gingrich is absolutely clueless when it comes to the economic reality of 44 million Americans who feed their families with the help of the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, food stamps (or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  

Two years into a so-called “recovery,” a record number of Americans—one in seven—receive food stamps. That’s because the program is designed to respond to economic downturns and increased hardship. And that’s exactly what it’s done. It’s one of the last remaining (and relatively strong) threads in our tattered and torn safety net—the same net which Republicans would gladly put through the shredder.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes, between December 2007 and December 2009 the number of unemployed workers doubled, and the number of workers out of a job for more than six months but still looking nearly quadrupled. SNAP caseloads rightly increased by 45 percent. (In contrast, TANF cash assistance caseloads increased just 13 percent, since it’s subject to the whims of states’ restrictive eligibility requirements thanks to Gingrich-Clinton welfare reform.)  

Part of the reason SNAP is so effective is that its federal eligibility rules are largely uniform across the nation so benefits are available to most households with low incomes. So who does Gingrich think those families turning to SNAP to stave off hunger are exactly? Here’s a cheat sheet—perhaps he can make use of it as he attempts to save his flailing campaign:

More than 75 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; and nearly one-third are in households with elderly people or people with disabilities. Over 34 percent of household heads are white, 21 percent African American, and less than 10 percent Hispanic. And the people receiving the benefits are exactly the people who really need them—over 90 percent have incomes below the poverty line, and 40 percent have incomes below half the poverty line (or “deep poverty,” just $9,155 for a family of three.) Finally, nearly three times as many SNAP households worked as relied solely on welfare benefits for their income.

And just how effective is SNAP as an anti-poverty tool?

In 2009, SNAP lifted 4.6 million Americans above the poverty line, including over 2 million children and 200,000 seniors.  For an average of $4.46 per day per household member, it is as effective an anti-poverty measure as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the most effective program when it comes to lifting families out of deep poverty.

In short, SNAP has been doing the job it was designed to do—until now, with bipartisan support.

“No one Administration deserves credit for helping to strengthen SNAP,” says Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at CBPP. “Work started at the end of the Clinton Administration to ensure that eligible people in need of food assistance were able to access the program. The Bush Administration worked very hard with states to improve program access.  Caseloads really started to rise in 2000 as a result of the economic downturn and the work to improve access. President Obama inherited rising caseloads that were driven primarily by the recession.”

But Gingrich took a whack at food stamps back when he was Speaker in 1995, attempting to convert the program into a block grant, and now his House Republican descendants want to do the same.

Under the House-passed Ryan budget, SNAP would be cut by almost 20 percent based “on the false claim that the program is experiencing ‘relentless and unsustainable growth,’” according to the CBPP. The fact is the program responded to the economic hardship of the recession and increase in poverty, and enrollment will decline as the economy recovers and need declines. But if we block grant it, the very responsiveness that is key to SNAP’s success will be lost as eligibility and benefit standards vary by state. Also, its ability to act as a stimulus by putting money in the hands of people most likely to spend it would be limited.

“Aside from the obvious fact that SNAP saves lives, SNAP is rapid and provides effective assistance to families and individuals who are struggling,” says Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We should be strengthening it, not diminishing it and not attacking it on what appears to be mainly ideological grounds.”

It is ugly and inhumane—but par for the course—that Gingrich and the GOP would spin SNAP’s success to push a case for gutting it.

“There still are unprecedented numbers of Americans who are struggling with no wages or low wages,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. “We have the resources, even in these difficult times, to eliminate hunger in this country. The consequences of not doing this are far too severe, and the moral cost is even greater.”

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