Gingrich's "Uncomfortable Facts" about Food Stamps Hold Water

Numbers suggest working off of the program may be tough for many recipients.

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In Monday's Fox News-Wall Street Journal Republican presidential debate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich repeated his assertion that President Obama is a "food stamp president." Moderator Juan Williams pressed him on the issue Monday night, particularly a recent statement that black Americans should "demand jobs, not food stamps." While Gingrich's statements about food stamp participation have numerical basis, it is questionable how the majority of food stamp participants—namely, children and the elderly—can indeed "help themselves" off of the program.

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Food stamp usage has, as Gingrich suggested, increased dramatically during the Obama presidency, but hanging the increase on the president is difficult. Participation in the Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program to which "food stamps" refers, has increased from an average of 28.2 million people per month in FY 2008 to 46.2 million as of October 2011, the most recent month for which data is available. However, SNAP participation has been on the rise since well before President Obama took office. Nearly 17.2 million people in FY 2000 participated in the program, a figure that increased by nearly 64 percent by 2008.

Gingrich has also denied racist undertones to his assertions, saying that he was simply using "facts that are uncomfortable." And in many ways, minorities were disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn. Blacks are hit harder by unemployment than non-Hispanic whites and Latinos and are also a larger share of SNAP recipients. While a plurality of SNAP households in FY 2010—35.7 percent—were headed by white non-Hispanics, according to the USDA, 22 percent were headed by African-Americans—a large share, considering that blacks make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population.

The question of food stamps, however, is part of a larger narrative that the former Speaker has woven about government assistance programs and the ability of America's poor to work their way to prosperity. His now-famous proposal of having children work as janitors in their schools—a proposal he defended last night—is one key example.

As part of a larger question about unemployment benefits, Gingrich spoke for all of the Republican candidates: "We actually think saying to somebody, 'I'll help you if you're willing to help yourself,' is good. And we think unconditional efforts by the best food stamp president in American history to maximize dependency is terrible for the future of this country."

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But it seems that many food stamp recipients may not be able to work themselves off the program. Nearly half (47 percent) of recipients in FY 2010 were under the age of 18, and 8 percent were 60 or older, according to a September report from the USDA.

And a large number of food stamp recipients work. The USDA has touted that the primary form of income for SNAP recipients has "shifted from welfare to work" over the last 20 years. Nearly 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2010, up from 19 percent in 1990. In addition, 41 percent of all participants in 2010 lived in a household with earnings.

Many jobs are simply so low-paying that workers need the assistance to feed themselves and their families,particularly during a prolonged economic downturn.

"The share of SNAP households with children that have earnings has basically stayed flat during the recession, which means the number of SNAP households with earnings has gone up dramatically," says Dorothy Rosenbaum, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Finding ways to get people off of SNAP and onto their feet may be a tougher proposition than formulating reforms to unemployment insurance. Gingrich proposed that "unemployment compensation should be tied to a job training requirement," but has no such proposals for helping people off of food assistance. That will depend on other economic improvements, says Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond in an email: "He hasn't proposed any changes [to SNAP]. He has said create new opportunities so people no longer need the program."