Newt Gingrich looks to be winning the race-baiting competition this Republican primary season. Fueled by a new version of his well honed attacks on the safety net, Gingrich celebrated Martin Luther King Day on Monday by restating what has become a staple of his stump speeches, calling President Obama the “best food stamp president in American history.”
The remark came, this time, after debate moderator Juan Williams asked if Gingrich’s campaign-trail suggestion that poor students be given jobs as janitors might me “viewed at a minimum insulting to all Americans, but as particularly to African Americans?” “The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barrack Obama than any president in American history,” Gingrich said before an audience that erupted into vociferous applause.
Gingrich argues that the reason so many people are on food stamps is not that the economy has thrown millions into poverty, but rather that lazy black families are getting on the dole and don’t want to work. Earlier this month, Gingrich told an audience in New Hampshire, “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
Gingrich’s attack on the food stamp program is not surprising; it’s the kind of politics that he’s been helping to perfect for over 30 years. He’s been waging the conservative counterrevolution against economic justice for a generation, using whatever Southern Strategy relics he can get his hands on.
For two decades, Gingrich and the GOP, often with the support of Democrats, have torn to shreds many of the New Deal and Great Society era programs that kept poor folks from total destitution—and that specifically sought to close the racial gaps in economic opportunity that black children inherit from generations of American apartheid. The conservative assault on these programs has often come with racially loaded caricatures of benefit recipients as lazy, greedy and criminal.
Yet, the food stamp program is among the last functional parts of the nation’s economic safety net. Food assistance has actually expanded to meet growing need.
The program, now officially called the Supplemental Food Assistance Program, serves 46 million Americans, 13 million more than in January 2009 when Obama took office. While cash assistance, Section 8 housing assistance and other programs have been slashed close to death, food stamps have held on and expanded thanks to an infusion from the stimulus package. For many families, it’s now the only thing that’s stopping hard times from turning into total catastrophe.
As I reported at the beginning of the recession, some families who can’t access cash assistance or unemployment insurance because of restrictions on those programs are now living on food stamps alone.
The program was spared from attack for a time, as more Americans signed up for help. The New York Times reported in late 2009 that as food stamp enrollment grew and families applied for help who’d never sought assistance before, the stigma that was once thrust upon the program had cleared.
But the Republican Party is not known to let a functioning safety net program function, especially when demonizing it can help them win elections. So Gingrich and other GOP hopefuls have set food stamps in their sights, doing all they can to infuse the program with the kind of racialized stigma that’s taken down other core safety-net programs. From a campaigning point of view, the strategy appears to be working. Gingrich’s South Carolina polling numbers jumped following his latest race-baiting foray, bringing him within striking distance of Mitt Romney.
Gingrich is not the only Republican candidate who’s attacked the food stamp program, though. Ron Paul, of course, would decimate all government safety-net programs. And even more troubling, front-runner Romney said during a New Hampshire primary debate, “I’d cut programs, a whole series of programs … return to states a whole series of programs, food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid…”
When Gingrich and President Bill Clinton passed the welfare reform bill in 1996, the federal income assistance program was devolved to the states and ceased to be an entitlement. Suddenly, very poor families were not entitled to income support and those who could access the program were subject to sanctions and work requirements that made it hard to stay on the rolls, and even harder to use the support to get out of poverty. States chopped the welfare program, now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, by the millions and imposed draconian restrictions, including time limits that cut families off of assistance after as little as 21 or 24 months.
The result of all of this: Welfare rolls plunged, but poverty did not. And low-income women were left without any buffer in a low-wage economy that simply does not pay enough to support a family.
Like Romney, Rick Santorum wants to subject food stamps to similar reforms.
“Food stamps is another place, we gotta block grant it and send it back to the states just like I did on welfare reform… require work, and you put a time limit on it,” Santorum said.
These are ideas that Gingrich as been spreading since he was first elected to office in 1979. In fact, Santorum once called himself “a disciple” of Gingrich.
For those true believers in trickle-down economics (who unfortunately populate all of the Republican party and much of the Democratic one), unemployment can’t be addressed by fixing a broken economy. For Gingrich and friends, since the free market is fundamentally sound, the explanation for high unemployment must be that the workers don’t want or don’t know how to work.
Incidentally, the majority of the 46 million people who rely on the food stamp program are actually seniors of retirement age and kids, not working age people. Which leads to the next piece of the Gingrich plan to fight so-called food stamp dependency and willful unemployment: put 11-year-old kids to work.
Gingrich told a crowd at a December fundraiser that “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works.” He said that the solution to joblessness and poverty could be to “hire 30-some kids to work … for the price of one janitor.” So Gingrich would solve the jobs crisis by compelling middle school children to clean their schools.
Newt Gingrich has done as much to wreck the federal safety net and translate the Southern Strategy into the post-racial era as anyone in Washington. His chances of gaining the Republican nomination are slim, but the war against poor people that Gingrich has lead is well entrenched. Regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, Gingrich’s legacy will carry on.
This article was originally published by Colorlines.