The blogosphere and mainstream columnists have continued opining about Newt Gingrich’s “food stamp president” stump line, especially since he’s doubled-down on the subject, and I’ve received some confusion from associates in person concerning my post on the subject. Thus, it is perhaps appropriate to clarify some issues.
I intentionally did not address the racial question that some have chosen to focus on – whether they interpret the line to be racist or not. Frankly (pun intended), I don’t feel comfortable enough addressing it. I’m not familiar enough with race history post-Civil Rights era, and because I do not represent a racial minority I don’t believe I have any relevant personal perspective to apply.
For such a perspective, I’ll leave it to the more capable hands of Ta-Nehisi Coates (this is somewhat taken out of context to make a point, so I do encourage you to read the whole thing):
When a professor of history calls Barack Obama a “Food Stamp President,” it isn’t a mistake to be remedied through clarification; it is a statement of aggresion. And when a crowd of his admirers cheer him on, they are neither deluded, nor in need of forgiveness, nor absolution, nor acting against their interest. Racism is their interest. They are not your misguided friends. They are your fully intelligent adversaries, sporting the broad range of virtue and vice we see in humankind. If you are a praying person, you should pray for their electoral destruction in November.
That being said, I think there are still legitimate questions for the rest of us. But here we have to distinguish between the intention of Newt’s line and the interpretation of those that received it. When someone like Juan Williams asks if his statements are intended to belittle racial minorities, it is because some racial minorities found them offensive, not because Juan was assuming that Newt is a racist. This is a subtle, yet very important distinction. So claiming that Newt is almost certainly not a racist does not discount the fact that some people will still take offense to it. The reason they will take offense is because there are still some in this country that believe that racial minorities – blacks in particular – are lazy and dependent on the government in such a way that denotes second-class status. Regardless of the fact that such a prejudice is largely based on a welfare system that hasn’t existed since 1996, it still remains the case that most people I’ve encountered – prejudiced or not – believe people simply get checks in the mail for being poor. Again, this is not true. Yet it’s no great leap of imagination to assume ignorant prejudice would beget ignorance of the welfare state in America.
The other clarification I’d like to provide concerns the numbers I mentioned. This article in USA Today brought up a different measurement of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program numbers than what I used (my emphasis in bold):
But Gingrich goes too far to say Obama has put more on the rolls than other presidents. We asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition service for month-by-month figures going back to January 2001. And they show that under President George W. Bush the number of recipients rose by nearly 14.7 million. Nothing before comes close to that.
And under Obama, the increase so far has been 14.2 million. To be exact, the program has so far grown by 444,574 fewer recipients during Obama’s time in office than during Bush’s.
It’s possible that when the figures for January 2012 are available they will show that the gain under Obama has matched or exceeded the gain under Bush. […]
The numbers I used were the average annual participation rates in thousands. That was different than the absolute increase in participants by looking at the monthly figures. The reason I used the average annual rates is because I didn’t have the time (nor the clout to ask a governmental dept. to crunch the numbers for me) to look at every month to get an absolute number. Obviously the other reason I chose that route was because that is where Gingrich’s claim comes from – and I was trying to somewhat play within his narrative to make a point.
Luckily, that article also provides some increased context for Newt’s ridiculus claim that the president “put” people on food stamps (again, my emphasis in bold):
USDA researchers said the jump in the participation rate happened because of actions by state governments. In a report released in August 2011, the Office of Research and Analysis said:
USDA: States have increased outreach to low-income households, implemented program simplifications, and streamlined application processes to make it easier for eligible individuals to apply for and receive SNAP [food stamp] benefits. Most States also have reduced the amount of information that recipients must report during their certification period to maintain their eligibility and benefit levels, making it easier for low-income households to participate.
Irrespective of what numbers you use, though, it’s still wildly disingenuous to claim the ascription of “food stamp president” is an entirely legitimate one because of “inconvenient facts.” This line of thinking really doesn’t deserve the attention it’s getting. Yet because I (shockingly) see people on the ground picking up Newt’s rationale I can’t help but do my part to provide context (my emphasis in bold, again):
Of course, Barack Obama has put no one on food stamps. Population growth together with the most severe recession since the advent of the modern American welfare state, which was in full swing when Mr Obama came into office, conspired to make a record number eligible for government food assistance. The Obama administration has moved to expand eligibility for the SNAP programme, but the initiative has not come to fruition. That there is a safety net, and that it succeeds in keeping millions of Americans from the misery and humiliation of hunger, may be an uncomfortable fact for Mr Gingrich, but not for Mr Obama or for any of those among us who do not lament this humane achievement.