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Tiziana Dearing Headshot

Newt Gingrich, Food Stamps and the Real Debate We Need

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Probably too much already has been made of Newt Gingrich's meteoric re-rise to popularity during last week's South Carolina primary. The world has moved on to Florida and the State of the Union. Still, the combination of cynicism and deflection Gingrich used in his celebrated (or notorious) debate appearances does us all a disservice, and needs to be examined more closely.

We all know Gingrich was a firebrand during the South Carolina debates. In particular, two iconic moments cast him as the red-meat political fighter that arguably catapulted him to the lead, and to primary victory. The first, his unapologetic indignation over John King's question about his marital infidelities is far outside my wheelhouse. But the hay he made in his exchange with black debate moderator Juan Williams, when Williams pushed him about his comments on food stamps, couldn't be more in the wheelhouse for someone focused on poverty. It was disingenuous and cynical in a way that hurts our ability to have a real conversation about security and stability for the poor and working poor.

We can get to disingenuous in a minute. Let's start with cynical. Back on Jan. 6, Gingrich caused controversy by offering to go to the convention of the NAACP and "talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." When Juan Williams asked Gingrich if he could understand how those comments and others he had made might be offensive to those in poverty in general, and to racial minorities in particular, Gingrich looked him in the eye and said, "No."

Really?

I find that remarkable. Gingrich is running for president of all of the United States -- that means poor and rich, black, white, brown and any other shade. One who aspires to represent our broad population ought to be able to read its various moods.

The comments also were cynical because someone of Gingrich's intelligence can't have missed the parallels between the old "welfare queen" language of the 1980s and this new "food stamp" language. Calling President Obama the food stamp president has a racial undertone to it -- whether Gingrich intended that or not is unknowable. It still does. The struggle to make ends meet is not a racial issue: It's an American issue. We experience it as one, and we need to tackle it as one - undivided.

Gingrich's debate remarks about food stamps were also disingenuous. Let's start with the facts about SNAP enrollment. (SNAP is the proper term today for "food stamps.")

In many states, historically, woefully few families eligible for SNAP benefits were enrolled to receive them. As food insecurity among the poor and working poor increased in the U.S., ensuring people accessed a food security benefit already in place became a priority. Therefore, federal, state and local officials began pushing for dramatic increases in food stamps, and then SNAP enrollment before the 2008 recession.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal itself noted that enrollment in SNAP went up by more than 50 percent during the administration of President George W. Bush. The New York Times reported in a 2009 article that "the Bush Administration led a campaign to erase the program's stigma, calling food stamps 'nutritional aid' instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply."

In my own state of Massachusetts, SNAP enrollment was up 73 percent over the five years prior in 2008. It must be noted that it was up 103 percent over the five years prior in 2010. Nationally, participation of eligible working poor families was at just 66 percent in 2007. Enrollment in 2009, however, was up 41 percent over the five years prior. These trends were the intersection of two patterns -- increasing financial hardship and a multi-administration push to support struggling Americans with SNAP.

Reasonable people can disagree about the role of government in providing for the emergency and transitional needs of its citizens facing hardship. I believe that a support like SNAP, when coupled with strong supports to help Americans build assets and futures, can be a good role for government to play. There are other legitimate views on the role of government, however, and we need that debate badly now.

That the American people -- including those unfairly stigmatized as "the poor" -- are in need of some help, however, really can't be argued. According to a late 2011 report by the Population Reference Bureau, nearly one in three working families in the United States is struggling to make ends meet:

Forty-six million people, including 23 million children, lived in low-income working families in 2010--an increase of 1.6 million people from the previous year. The number of children in low-income working families increased by more than 500,000 in just one year.

That brings us to the last reason Gingrich's remarks were unfortunate. Gingrich is right that the trajectory for rising in this country is first to get a job, then get a better one, and then "own the job." When he laments the lack of improvement in unemployment since the start of the recession, fair enough. Even Fareed Zakaria recently noted that it could take five years to get employment back to pre-recession levels.

Those economic challenges, the ones faced by the vast majority of people in the U.S. of all races -- people who want to get ahead and be in America's Rising Class but can't get their hands on the tools for rising -- are what we should be discussing in 2012. And we should be doing so united, not divided.

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