To hear some GOP presidential hopefuls tell it, the person most responsible for keeping low-income Americans poor and on government assistance is President Obama.
When Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are not hammering the president on jobs and the economy, the twin issues of government dependency and people living in poverty have emerged as a favorite side theme; both candidates are creatures of the 1990s who tout their own roles in helping enact welfare reform during the Clinton administration.
Gingrich’s incorrect claim that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history” brought a debate audience to its feet in Charleston, S.C., and was the first hint of his appeal to the state's primary voters. The former House speaker is also fond of suggesting that “poor children” lack a work ethic and should be given jobs as janitors in their schools. And he got into hot water with such groups as the NAACP and National Urban League for saying that “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
Santorum, too, has repeatedly accused liberals of expanding safety-net programs for political purposes and frequently advocates marriage as an essential part of battling poverty. “They’re just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote,” the former senator from Pennsylvania said earlier this month in Iowa, singling out food stamps and Medicaid, both programs that serve the poor, as examples. “That’s what the bottom line is,” he said.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels piled on in his rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, calling Obama “pro-poverty.”
On one level, this line of attack fits neatly into the GOP’s economic message of fewer government programs and more jobs under a Republican administration. But it also has the bonus of firing up Republicans who believe that the government is unfairly using their tax dollars to benefit the undeserving.
Antipoverty advocates say that the rhetoric at best is counterproductive to a substantial policy discussion about poverty in America, and at worst demonizes people who turned to government assistance in the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Indeed, Gingrich and Santorum hardly ever mention the Great Recession in explaining why government assistance rolls have expanded.
Don Mathis, president of the Community Action Partnership, a network of local antipoverty agencies funded in part by federal dollars, said that the talk is perpetuating old, unfair stereotypes. “I’ve never heard, ‘Boy, am I glad I’m on food stamps’ or ‘Thank God, I’ve got these food stamps so I can sit on the couch and watch Ellen DeGeneres!’ ” he said. “I’ve heard, ‘Food stamps have saved my family or enabled me to take care of my children.’ ”
An analysis by the nonpartisan FactCheck.org found that more people — 14.7 million — were added to the food-stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, under the George W. Bush administration than the 14.2 million who were added during Obama’s presidency, even after eligibility requirements were relaxed and benefits increased in 2009 with the passage of the economic-stimulus bill. Medicaid grew from 42.7 million beneficiaries at the onset of the recession in 2007 to over 50 million as of December 2010.
Ron Haskins, a former House GOP staffer who worked on welfare reform in the mid-1990s, says that he would welcome a national debate on work requirements for government-assistance programs or a serious discussion on how to maintain a safety net while curbing overreliance. But that’s not the conversation that’s being sparked by the candidates’ incendiary rhetoric.
“There is real misery in a recession, especially with 8.5 percent unemployment and many more than that who’ve just stopped looking for work,” said Haskins, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Just to label the president the 'food-stamp president' passes up an opportunity to engage on an important issue that really does separate the parties.”
On the point that liberals are purposefully attempting to keep Americans dependent, Haskins notes the 30 Democratic House members and 23 Democratic senators who voted for welfare reform in 1996 and the Democratic president who signed the bill.
Still other observers find something distinctly unsettling about labeling the first African-American president the “food-stamp president.” Melissa Boteach, a manager at the Center for American Progress, called it “race-baiting and red meat, frankly,” and said she’d rather have a debate about how to give low-income Americans access to better jobs or ways to develop the skills they need to get them, a problem that Obama referenced in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
“It’s demagoguery to say that only poor people’s programs make people dependent but the plethora doled out to the rich promote free enterprise,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, noting that farm subsidies and government roads are rarely tied to the theme of dependence.
Who paid Gingrich and Santorum’s salaries for a large portion of their careers? Berg asks. The U.S. government.