Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said attacks on the U.S. food-stamp program, a standby of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s criticisms of President Barack Obama, exploit stereotypes of aid recipients.
Those who get the federal assistance “are playing by the rules,” Vilsack, whose department administers food stamps, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg News. “There are misconceptions about this program and confusion” about recipients caused by negative portrayals by some Obama opponents, he said.
Food-stamp use has increased 46 percent since December 2008, a month before Obama took office and when the economy was shedding jobs. Total spending has more than doubled in four years to an all-time high of $75.3 billion, a level called unsustainable by Republicans including Gingrich, who has labeled Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history.”
Gingrich’s characterization of Obama’s food stamp policies has drawn criticism from groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which issued a statement Jan. 6 calling his comments “inaccurate” and “divisive.”
Gingrich has dismissed the complaints as a smear from “modern liberals” who are “off the deep end.”
“I don’t think he is consciously whipping up bigotry, but he is no fool and this is going to be seen through a racial prism,” David Greenberg, an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said in an interview. “It has to do with how these issues are framed and understood. It wouldn’t be hard for him to mute or disavow the racial component.”
About 34 percent of food-stamp recipients are white, while 22 percent are African Americans and 16 percent Hispanic, with the rest being Asian, Native American or those who chose not to identify their race, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About half are younger than 18, and 8 percent are older than 60. Some 41 percent of all recipients live in households where family members are employed.
Most Partisan Debate
Parke E. Wilde, an associate professor at Tufts University in Boston, said the debate over food stamps is the most partisan that he’s seen in the 20 years he’s been following the issue.
In the past, political parties argued fundamentally about cash and marginal changes in food stamps, including how to penalize participants who fail to complete work requirements, or whether to include legal immigrants, he said.
“But whether they were Republican or Democrat, farm-state or urban, legislators tended to agree on the basic structure of food stamps,” Wilde said. “I have never before heard anything like Gingrich’s tarring of President Obama as a ‘food-stamp president.’”
Gingrich’s discussion of food stamps echoes Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of a “welfare queen” during his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, said Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
With Reagan, the portrayal was “someone who may be taking cash from the government to put beer in the refrigerator,” Smith said.
Reagan and Gingrich, who often compares himself to the former president, in both cases link government dependency and wasteful spending with Democrats, he said. What’s changed, he said, are the programs themselves.
“When Reagan talked about welfare queens, he was talking about” Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a program for low-income children eliminated in the 1990s. “Food stamps are a much more tightly controlled program, but you still want to use this image of associating programs with dependency, so the example becomes food stamps,” he said.
In a poll released yesterday by the Washington-based anti-hunger organization Food Research and Action Center, most Americans opposed cutting food stamps, with 92 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Independents saying cuts to the program are the wrong way to reduce spending.
Congress in November approved a spending bill that projects $80.4 billion in food-stamp funds for more than 47 million people this year.
From 1970 until about a decade ago, average annual enrollment rose or fell roughly with economic conditions. The figure has declined only once since then, partly because policies adopted under President George W. Bush encouraged more eligible people to apply for aid, said David Armor, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
That, along with additional money for food stamps in the 2009 economic stimulus bill, has accounted for the increase in program spending since 2008, he said. It also led to calls for change by Gingrich, fellow Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and others.
Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia and speaker of the House, said yesterday on NBC’s “Today” show, that he began calling Obama the food-stamp president in the 2010 election cycle. He said the president’s policies “have put more Americans on food stamps than any president in history.”
An e-mail to his campaign late yesterday seeking comment drew no response.
In last night’s presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, another Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, took aim at food stamps, saying Obama’s policies toward the working class make them more dependent on the government.
“Give them more food stamps, give them more Medicaid” is the administration’s approach, rather than creating jobs, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said.
Food stamps, created as a temporary measure in 1939 and revived in the 1960s “War on Poverty,” are now provided via plastic cards rather than stamp-like coupons through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The aid is intended as a safety net that includes more people when the economy falters, as in recent years when the unemployment rate surged, Kevin Concannon, the head of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, said in a recent interview. “That’s the way this program is designed.”
Identifying food stamps with race is inappropriate, said the USDA’s Vilsack, who declined to comment on how any specific political candidate should speak on the issue. Given the program’s importance in keeping working families out of poverty, it also shouldn’t be mischaracterized as a handout for the undeserving, he said.
“I think it’s important for us to take this opportunity to educate the country,” he said.