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Is Obama a Food Stamp President?

Is Obama a Food Stamp President?

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With 47 million Americans on food stamps, who's to blame?

President Obama is under fire from the Republican camp over a spike in the food stamp program's participation.

According to the USDA, a record 46.7 million Americans were participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in June, otherwise known as food stamps, and the annual cost has more than doubled in the past four years.

Republicans, especially the Mitt Romney campaign, have pounced on the statistic, using it as proof that America is worse off under President Obama. Newt Gingrich has gone as far as to call Obama the “food stamp president.”

But is it true?

Tad DeHaven at the Cato Institute argues that blame for the program’s explosion falls on both sides of the aisle, thanks to a 2002 farm bill (passed under a Republican-controlled House and George W. Bush as President) that greatly expanded benefits.

The Huffington Post defends Obama by putting things in a glass-half-full light, citing food stamp use numbers over the last four years. According to the USDA, food stamp usage jumped 23% jump during the President’s first year in office, but only grew three percent in the past 12 months.

As DeHaven puts it, “The Obama administration certainly deserves to be heavily criticized for the growth in government dependency, but it’s hard to view [Republican’s] sudden discovery of religion as anything more than standard politics.”

Newt Gingrich Calls President Obama a “Food Stamps President”

Newt Gingrich has officially been in the 2012 presidential race for less than a week and the former House Speaker from Georgia, who is sometimes gaffe-prone, already has put his foot in it.

Speaking at a GOP convention in Georgia last weekend, Gingrich called President Obama the “most successful food stamp president” in the nation’s history.

“You want to be a country that creates food stamps? In which case, frankly, Obama is an enormous success—the most successful food stamp president in American history. Or do you want to be a country that creates jobs?” Gingrich said in a speech he delivered. “I would like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history.”

In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this week, host David Gregory showed video of the speech and said that there are a lot of people who might think he used “coded racially tinged language” to make his point.

“That’s bizarre. This kind of automatic reference to racism,” Gingrich said, adding that with 47 million Americans receiving food stamps the president must be held accountable.

Gingrich also blamed Obama for the recession and severe economic and social problems that Detroit is experiencing. He believes that the president’s policies mirror the policies that destroyed Detroit.

“The Obama system is going to lead us down the path to Detroit and destruction. I think we need a brand new path that’s a path of job creation. And one of the central things of this campaign is going to be paychecks versus food stamps,” Gingrich said.

Racist or not, his remarks are very unfair. How can you blame a president for an economic meltdown that occurred before he was even elected to office?

Barack Obama Is the Food Stamp President

Newt Gingrich has taken to characterizing President Barack Obama as “the food stamp president.” That description of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s current occupant is factually correct, both narrowly and broadly. Stating that fundamental truth does not make Gingrich or anyone else a racist, as leftist smear merchants in government, the Democratic Party, and the establishment press want America to believe.

Participation in the food stamp program, technically known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), has increased by 44% from 32.0 million in January 2009 to 46.2 million in October 2011, the last month for which data is available. During that time, the average monthly benefit per person has increased by over 18% from $114 to $135, even though the costs of food eaten at home have increased by only 5%, and even though gross benefits before deductions for income and assets three years ago roughly approximated what was needed to maintain adequate nutrition on a “thrifty meal plan.” Monthly program costs have increased by over 70%, from $3.6 billion to $6.2 billion.

So-called “fact-checkers” in the press are of course focusing on Gingrich’s one slightly wrong (for now) statement that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” That’s not exactly a whopper, especially in comparison to Obama howlers like “If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan” and “My mother, who was self-employed, didn’t have reliable healthcare,” or even “The detention facilities at Guantánamo … shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the (January 22, 2009) date of this order.” Press hacks who have been falsely claiming during the past few days (examples here, here, and here) that more Americans were on food stamps under Bush than under Obama are making Gingrich look like George Washington by comparison on this issue.

The food stamp rolls indeed increased by 14.7 million under George W. Bush compared to “only” 14.2 million under Obama (so far). But Bush’s figure works out to an average of about 153,000 additional recipients per month during his eight years in office. Monthly additions during Barack Obama’s first 33 reported months have averaged 431,000. During the economy’s relatively strong years of 2005 through 2007, the food stamp rolls stayed relatively steady at 25-27 million. In the past fiscal year under Obama, while the economy added over 1.6 million seasonally adjusted jobs, the food stamp rolls still grew by over 3.3 million. Finally, food stamp program spending under Obama is on track to exceed all that was spent during Bush’s eight years by June, the administration’s 41st month.

More broadly, food giveaways under all guises have exploded under Obama. School food program costs have increased by 22% during the past three fiscal years, even though it should be obvious that the government is already paying many kids’ parents to feed them through food stamps. Women, infants, and children? Up 16%. Other food distribution programs? Up 52%. With all of this spending, what’s the main nutrition-related problem facing the country, even more among those in poverty than among the general population? You guessed it: obesity.

When the first of the bogus “food stamp challenges” began appearing throughout the country about five years ago, Mona Charen wrote:

Why is it that whenever you listen to a Democrat you feel that the year is 1966? They seem to live in a time warp in which no progress has been made on race relations, poverty, childhood malnutrition, and on and on.

Indeed. The “food stamp challenges” still occur quite frequently — eight Democratic congresspersons participated in one late last year designed to “prove” that they could not feed themselves on $4.50 a day — even though per-person benefits are 50% higher than they were when the idea was conceived.

As to Charen’s reference to race relations, the biggest smear of all coming from defenders of the indefensible is that anyone who points out that federal food assistance programs are too expensive, duplicate services, lack appropriate controls, and have eligibility criteria which are far too generous must be a racist. NBC’s Ann Curry went after Gingrich with that arrogant assertion on January 19, asking him, in light of his “food stamp president” criticism, “Are you intentionally playing the race card to win votes?”

Gingrich’s answer was pretty good:

When conservatives care about the poor and conservatives offer ideas to help the poor, and conservatives suggest that the poor would rather have a paycheck than a food stamp, the very liberals who have failed them at places like the New York Times promptly scream “racism,” because they have no defense for the failure of liberal institutions which have trapped poor children in bad schools, trapped them in bad neighborhoods, trapped them in crime-ridden situations. Liberal solutions have failed, and their only answer is to cry “racism” and hide.

That said, Newt could have and should have gone farther and turned the racism charge back on Curry and the editorialists she quoted at the Times — as all sensible conservatives should when confronted with similar slime.

You see, Curry believed her question to be valid only because she assumed that blacks make up a wildly disproportionate share of food stamp recipients. They don’t. In 2010, the population living in poverty as defined by the Census Bureau was 23% black. In fiscal 2011, blacks who identified their race made up 22% of all food stamp recipients, and 30% of those who self-identified their race (27% of participants did not self-identify).

So, Ann Curry and all you other leftists, why do you assume that food stamp program participants are disproportionately black when it clearly isn’t so? It’s quite racist for you to believe that, and you wouldn’t have asked the question if you didn’t.

Criticizing the food stamp program and the president who has grown it like no other predecessor isn’t about racism. It’s about controlling its costs, making sure that benefits only go to those who need them, figuring out ways of getting people self-sufficient to the point where they no longer need to participate — and sending the guy under whom the program’s irresponsible growth has occurred into retirement.

Pres. Obama signs Farm Bill

The food stamp cuts are one component of a massive omnibus bill which also includes billions of dollars in crop insurance and various other programs and subsidies involving American agriculture. Before he signed the legislation, President Obama praised it as an example of bipartisan problem-solving that would help create jobs and move the American economy forward.

"Congress passed a bipartisan Farm Bill that is going to make a big difference in communities across the country," said the president.

Obama's remarks also focused heavily on economic inequality, which he has previously called "the defining challenge of our time." The Farm Bill, he said, would "give more Americans a shot at opportunity."

When House Republicans originally argued for a food stamp cut of between $20.5 billion and $39 billion, the White House threatened to veto both of those proposals. During his Friday speech, the president did not say whether he was satisfied with the final $8.7 billion figure, or even mention the cuts at all. Instead, he praised the food stamp program and said that the final Farm Bill preserved much-needed benefits.

Economic Conditions

From 1970 until about a decade ago, average annual enrollment rose or fell roughly with economic conditions. The figure has declined only once since then, partly because policies adopted under President George W. Bush encouraged more eligible people to apply for aid, said David Armor, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

That, along with additional money for food stamps in the 2009 economic stimulus bill, has accounted for the increase in program spending since 2008, he said. It also led to calls for change by Gingrich, fellow Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney and others.

Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia and speaker of the House, said yesterday on NBC’s “Today” show, that he began calling Obama the food-stamp president in the 2010 election cycle. He said the president’s policies “have put more Americans on food stamps than any president in history.”

An e-mail to his campaign late yesterday seeking comment drew no response.

Faces of poverty

But these numbers alone do not tell the whole story.

Food stamp enrollment has been rising for more than a decade. President Bush launched a recruitment campaign, which pushed average participation up by 63% during his eight years in office.

Nearly the same number of people -- 11 million -- joined the program during the Bush and Obama administrations, according to Department of Agriculture records. Of course, the jump during Obama's tenure has come in only three years.

Also, food stamps are available to anyone who meets the criteria, generally having a monthly net income below the poverty line -- about $18,500 a year for a family of three -- and assets of $2,000 or less. Even with the ramp-up, an estimated one in four eligible Americans do not participate, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Much of what's driving the steep climb in enrollment is the nation's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, when the food stamp program was created.

Food stamps have become a lifeline for the millions of long-term unemployed. More than 20% of those unemployed for more than six months received benefits, according to Congress' Joint Economic Committee.

"The program is designed to be responsive to economic downturns and it's met the need that's out there," said Dorothy Rosenbaum, the center's senior policy analyst. "These increases are temporary."

However, Gingrich may have a point in painting Obama as an entitlement president, said Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Spending on income-based programs, such as food stamps, has increased by one-third to $900 billion under Obama. There are 70 such programs.

"He is massively expanding spending on welfare-related programs," Rector said. "Food stamps is a symbol of that growth."

Chart: Is Obama Really the “Food Stamp” President?

In his South Carolina victory speech, Newt Gingrich laid into President Obama and disparaged him as the “food stamp” president&mdashas if it’s a repugnant notion to help Americans when they’re struggling. In any case, he inspired me to chart some data.

I calculated the percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population&mdashanybody 17 and older who’s neither in prison nor the military&mdashreceiving federal food aid. (Click on links for source data I used the July population figures.) The red and blue bars indicate the party of the president who created that year’s budget. For instance, Obama’s first budget was for fiscal year 2010, which commenced in October 2009. So for the first three quarters of 2009, America was operating on a Bush budget.

So what does this tell us? Well, food stamp use is certainly higher than it’s been in more than four decades. Is that because, as Gingrich claims, Obama is nurturing a culture of dependency? Hardly. It just means that more people are hurting (to the degree that a few have even resorted to illegal activities to pay the bills).

The chart also tells us that the explosion of participation in the food stamp program began with President Bush’s first budget and continued all through his tenure. More Americans signed up for food assistance under Bush than have signed up under Obama&mdashso far, anyway. And if you really want to blame presidents for soaring food stamp use, you should probably also point out that Bush had eight years to turn the trend around&mdashincluding four years with backup from a solidly GOP Congress&mdashyet failed to do so.

The steepest decline in food stamps came under President Clinton&mdashwhen Gingrich was House speaker and the nation was going hog-wild with its dot-com boom. President Reagan, Gingrich’s hero, whose deficit spending helped fuel a degree of prosperity, oversaw a decline in food stamp use followed by an increase that left things worse than when he took office.

In short, it’s disingenous of Gingrich, and really kind of insulting to out-of-work Americans, to go after Obama on this account. The candidate is smart enough to know that the number of hungry people seeking help is a pretty good gauge of our economic health. And as the chart makes clear, neither party has a monopoly on the good times.

UPDATE (Jan. 24, 3:41 EST) &mdash This just in. A large and growing share of food stamp households (48 percent) are working households. So much for Newt’s dependency theory.

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Food Stamp President

Soon after Newt Gingrich flagged President Obama as “The food-stamp President” USA-Today published “Fact check: Gingrich’s faulty food-stamp claim” indicating that President Bush was slightly more deserving of that title than was President Obama. It seems that under President Bush the total rose by about 14.7 million while under President Obama the number of those on food stamps increased by 14.2 million. Overall, the numbers of Americans on food stamps are at historic highs: 46,224, 722 or about 15% of the population. Indeed, the numbers are at unprecedented levels. No president before them even comes close to snagging the title.

Most newspaper or television commentators seem unaware of the USA-Today ‘fact check” article and continue to argue about which President holds the title bestowed by Speaker Gingrich. Many continue to talk about the Gingrich assertion as thought it were true. Eventually it may be true. Although the numbers of those newly enrolled in the food-stamp program are declining, it may be that the half million or so differential between the numbers enrolled during the Bush presidency and those for the Obama presidency could be made up during 2012 or 2013. I suspect that if President Obama is re-elected, he will become the “food stamp” President the Speaker Gingrich currently claims him to be. Perhaps Speaker Gingrich has decided to let this small difference slide for the moment since eventually he has a high probability of being right. After all, if you wait long enough all things will eventually be right or the truth won’t matter at all.

Newt Gingrich has used “food stamps” as an acronym for “entitlement society,” and with about 1 in 7 on food stamps he has a point. Nevertheless, Speaker Gingrich is fracturing the truth when he claims President Obama to be the “food stamp President.” Interestingly, to be eligible for food stamps, one must have an income at or below 130 percent the official poverty level. For a family of four that’s $29,000. Among those who received food stamps, 47% were children, 8% were over the age of 60 while 41 % had jobs. The latter individuals were among the working poor. Average food stamp benefits were $287 per month, or about 20% more than one would collect per month working 15 hours/week in a $7-8/hour part time job.

Although, those eligible for food stamps are increasingly among the working poor it is not widely appreciated why this occurs and why it has been increasing since about 2000. Of course, there were further increases after the 2007-8 Great Recession began. Speaker Gingrich does not seem happy about this. He believes that people on food stamps need to get off them and get real jobs. He and others running for the GOP presidential nomination suggest they can provide real jobs. One hopes they are correct. After they have finished telling us how badly each of the others has performed in the past, perhaps they will say something about how they will generate sufficient new jobs that pay well enough to get Americans off food stamps.

We’ve been losing real jobs to automation and off-shoring for some time. The Great Recession of 2007-8 accelerated this process. Many businesses added automated systems after going through downsizing initially and then automating after rebuilding cash reserves. One can see the results in the increased labor productivity figures. Robots and computers don’t need wages or fringe benefits—they also make few if any mistakes. Thus, industry produces more widgets per worker (more widgets, fewer workers). Automation will continue most likely at an accelerated pace.

Economists suggest that jobs lost to automation will be replaced. That may be true in the long run. We will also likely experience an increased rate of innovation, among those with skills. For the present, people who have run out of luck will take the jobs they can find. They may work part time for minimum wage, find additional work using whatever skills they possess doing whatever jobs people will hire them to do. They would happily take new jobs that Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney or any others might help develop after the presidential elections have run their course. For now food stamps may help families eat as well as pay the rent or make a house payment or even turn up the temperature on the furnace on a cold night if they can string together a couple of part time jobs to go with the food stamps.


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