It is a callous and cynical game. Ronald Reagan showed us how it works with his mythic welfare queen from Chicago’s South Side, playing to the nation’s emotions and fueling suspicions and jealousies among voters.
Today, the food stamp program is portrayed as a big government handout to a growing entitlement class. Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, with his usual abrasive approach to policy debate, calls Barack Obama “the best food stamp president in American history.”
Let us set aside, for a moment, the implicit racism in the charge, and talk food stamps.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is the nation’s leading anti-hunger program. The average food stamp recipient received about $133.70 a month (or about $4.40 a day). Food stamps kept more than 5 million people out of poverty in 2010 and lessened the severity of poverty for millions of others. To qualify for food stamps, a household must meet federal criteria including total monthly household income at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,008 (about $24,100 a year) for a three-person family.
In 2011, more than 45 million low-income earners — about one in seven Americans — received food stamp benefits. That is a record — fewer than 31 million people collected the benefits about three years earlier. Food stamp usage is up for two reasons: one of the worst economic recessions in our history, and legitimate efforts to expand the program to eligible households.
According to U.S. Census data, 49 percent of food stamp recipients are white, 26 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic.
Which brings us to the racial code with which Gingrich speaks. Both Gingrich and Rick Santorum have gone out of their way to invoke racial stereotypes on the campaign trail. “(T)he African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” Gingrich says. He also dredges up pejorative racial stereotypes when he says poor children lack a work ethic and should be put to work as janitors in their schools.
For his part, Santorum, talking about welfare programs at an Iowa campaign stop early last month, said: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
Mitt Romney chimes in to the inferences with his comment that Obama wants to transform America into an “entitlement society.” He lets slip that he isn’t overly concerned about the very poor because we have a social safety net, yet it would be ripped to shreds under Romney’s policy agenda.
Our political leaders should be addressing — and not ignoring — the fact that almost 25 percent of the children in this country are dependent on food stamps. They should be talking about the causes of poverty and how we can solve it. But it easier to divide the public along racial and class lines, and distract our attention away from widening levels of economic disparity. Republicans like Gingrich scream about class warfare, yet they would deny children food and expose them to the damaging effects of malnutrition.