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Gingrich, GOP Makes Food Stamps Hot Button Campaign Issue

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jan 23, 2012 4:11PM

2011_8_11_food_stamps.jpg Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice has an article in today's paper that takes aim at the Republican party, and specifically presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, for making food stamps and welfare a campaign issue.

Trice writes:

"While the Republican presidential race has brought the welfare issue to the forefront, critics say it has also resurrected stereotypical images of the black 'welfare mother' having out-of-wedlock babies so she can stay home and live large off the taxpayers."

Trice cites some numbers about welfare and SNAP assistance that are sobering in the face of the rhetoric being issued by Gingrich and other critics.

•Though blacks are disproportionately represented among food stamp recipients, far more whites receive such assistance. When recipients identified themselves by race in 2010, 34 percent were white, 22 percent were black and 16 were percent Hispanic, the Agriculture Department said.

•Food-stamp spending has indeed increased under Obama, but its steady climb began under President George W. Bush.

•Blacks form a slight plurality in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a system that offers cash assistance and is much smaller than the food stamp program. Of families receiving TANF help in 2009, 33 percent were African-American, 31 percent were white and 29 percent were Hispanic.

•Since passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, those seeking cash assistance have faced strict work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit.

•In some welfare categories, rolls have dramatically declined. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the TANF cash assistance program, about 1.9 million families received TANF funds last year, down from a record 5 million families in 1994.

In short, poverty and the need for food stamps is color blind. But that isn't stopping Gingrich from using race in a thinly veiled manner to curry support in his campaign. University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson tells Trice.

"It was a blatant attempt to resort to a 40-year-old tactic to prop up one's campaign by evoking the black-person-on-welfare trope. It's a tired tactic but one that's sometimes effective in mobilizing white racial resentment."

If Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary is any indication, his message is resonating with voters.

The number of Americans on food stamps is at a record high, with one in every five Americans receiving assistance. Locally, we've seen a record number of residents on SNAP assistance. Consultant Mari Gallagher, whose landmark 2006 report on Chicago's "food deserts" put the issue of poverty front and center, noted in her 2011 food desert progress report that $880 million in SNAP assistance flowed through Chicago in 2010.