Republican-Heavy Counties Eat Up Most Food-Stamp Growth

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in May that he’d written off votes from 47 percent of Americans who are collecting government aid. Turns out many of them are part of his political base.

Seventy percent of counties with the fastest-growth in food-stamp aid during the last four years voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data compiled by Bloomberg. They include Republican strongholds like King County, Texas, which in 2008 backed Republican John McCain by 92.6 percent, his largest share in the nation; and fast-growing Douglas County, Colorado.

That means Romney is counting on votes from areas where lower-income people have become more reliant on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps. Mark Baisley, who heads Douglas County’s Republican Party, said many recipients will back Romney in hopes he’ll improve the economy.

“Would you rather be sitting at home wishing you had a job and relying upon the kindness of neighbors?” Baisley said in a telephone interview from Colorado, one of the swing states that Romney and President Barack Obama are battling over. “Or would you rather be self-supporting, with a job that sustains your family?”

In a video from a May fundraiser, Romney said “there are 47 percent who are with him,” referring to Obama, “who are dependent on government.” They “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.”

Feeding Families

In an August report, Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group LLC in New York, predicted that risk-averse voters in competitive states may side with the presidential candidate who would extend benefits, even if it means a slower recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“You have a lot of people who are relying upon the government to put food on the table for themselves or their families,” Colas said in an interview. “That’s going to have to inform a lot of decisions.”

Romney has suggested transferring control of food stamps and other federal programs to states. The change would save money and make the programs more effective, the former Massachusetts governor argues.

“If the question is what is best for low-income Ohioans, shouldn’t we let Ohioans make that call?” Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, said in an Oct. 24 speech in Cleveland.

Democrats and hunger-relief groups say the Republican plan would deprive millions of Americans of the food aid.

$80 Billion

More than 16 million additional people have gone on food stamps in the last four years, according to the USDA. The $80 billion program has grown from an initial 2.9 million beneficiaries in 1969 to 46.7 million at the end of July, the latest month for which figures are available.

It now provides food to one in every five U.S. households, largely as a result of 2009 economic-stimulus legislation backed by Obama that waived limits on program benefits and opened food-stamp participation to people without children.

The number of food-stamp recipients in Pitkin County, which includes the Aspen Ski Resort, has increased faster than any other reported county in the nation during the last four years. It climbed to 270 households, a 463 percent increase over the 48 that received food stamps in 2008.

Downhill Industry

LIFT-UP, a 30-year-old interfaith humanitarian program in Rifle, Colorado, about 70 miles northwest of Aspen, helped provide food to more than 5,100 families this year after a poor ski season hurt tourism-industry workers and the collapse of natural-gas prices devastated the region’s energy sector, said Mike Powell, LIFT-UP’s executive director.

Powell said he doubts people struggling to put food on the table are paying too much attention to politics. The number of families asking for help has actually fallen slightly over the first nine months of the year for the first time in three years, he said.

Countering the national trend, food-stamp participation rates have increased fastest in Colorado counties that voted for Obama in 2008. Still, those rates have doubled in Douglas, which gave 58 percent of its 2008 vote to McCain even as Obama won the state by almost 9 points. Located between Denver and Colorado Springs, Douglas reported 6,014 households getting nutritional help in 2011, a 102 percent increase from 2008.

Temporary Hand-Up

The increase in food-stamp recipients also was pronounced in Republican bastions such as Collin County, Texas, which registered a 128 percent increase to 47,102 households in 2011, and Gwinnett County, Georgia, where usage climbed 117 percent to 101,815 households. Collin County, a Dallas suburb, gave McCain 62 percent of its 2008 vote. Gwinnett, part of the Atlanta metro area, supported the Republican with 55 percent of its ballots.

The increase in food stamps in those strongholds doesn’t mean Romney will lose votes, said Michael Franc, vice president for governmental studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Republican-leaning research organization in Washington.

“We’re talking about people who got pretty hammered by the economic meltdown,” he said. “It’s a temporary hand-up, not a permanent condition of life. They’ve gotten help, but it’s been something they’ve requested very reluctantly.”

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