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Rick Santorum Gets Tough On Food Stamps, Jon Huntsman Promises 'Real Pain'

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Moderator David Gregory pivoted to "substance" about 10 minutes after Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) suggested he should in Sunday's NBC/Facebook presidential debate. Gregory asked former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to suggest three areas in which Americans would feel "real pain" under his budget cutting regime.

Huntsman responded: "I agree with the Ryan plan. I think I'm the only one on the stage who's embraced the Ryan plan."

Most of his fellow candidates have danced around in their support for the plan because it's seen as something akin to electoral poison. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) himself is now backing a plan he cooked up with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Of course, while the original Ryan plan would definitively inflict pain (it would solve the problem of Medicare spending by providing Medicare recipients with a voucher designed to grow less valuable over time), Gregory wasn't satisfied with Huntsman's answer and pressed for "three areas." Huntsman, after prompting, offered Social Security, Medicare and defense.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum agreed with Huntsman on Social Security means testing, but went further, offering a plan to turn food stamps and housing assistance into block grants for states, in which recipients would be required to work and time limits would be imposed. This allowed Santorum to remind everyone of his role in the welfare reform fights of the 1990s.

Santorum wants to do to food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid what he did for welfare back then. The program was eliminated in 1996 by a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, and replaced with a time-limited program that cuts people off regardless of their family's financial situation.

It failed: Poverty has risen significantly since the program was eliminated and replaced. (It succeeded, however, if the goal was simply to take the issues of welfare and poverty off the political table.)

Today, more than 46 million people live in poverty, the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began counting more than half a century ago.

That model, said Santorum, should be applied to other assistance programs, cutting families off without regard to their current situation but instead based on timelines set by Congress.

"We've gotta block-grant [food stamps] and send it back to the states, just like I did with welfare reform -- do the same thing with Medicaid, including housing programs, block-grant them, send them back to the states, require work, and you put a time limit on it," said Santorum.

"We'll help take these programs, which are now dependencies," he said, "and you help people move out of poverty."

But without a dramatic and unprecedented expansion of jobs that pay middle-class wages, it's unclear where those tens of millions of people would find such work.

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