01/19/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Most SNAP Households Have Children, Elderly, Disabled, or Are Working

In Monday's Republican presidential debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich regurgitated his charge that President Barack Obama is the "food stamp president," justifying his assertion by stating that "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history."

Gingrich has also urged the African American community to seek "paychecks, not food stamps," implying that black Americans would prefer government assistance to a job.

What Gingrich fails to realize, however, is that most households on food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) have a child, elderly person, or disabled person.

An analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on program participation showed that nearly half of SNAP participants (47 percent) were under the age of 18, and 8 percent were age 60 or older. Perhaps Gingrich thinks that with his plan to put kids to work as janitors in schools, they will make enough to feed their families.

Another inconvenient fact for Gingrich's analysis is that many families on food stamps do work. In fact more than three times as many SNAP households had income from work rather than from welfare. And nearly 21 percent of SNAP households received Supplemental Security Income, which are benefits given to the aged and disabled. Perhaps Gingrich thinks that our elderly and disabled citizens are not working hard enough.

To reduce food stamp participation, Gingrich recommends that the federal government fix the amount of money for the program and then send the money to the states as a block grant, which would put a cap on SNAP spending regardless of need, and place the burden of cutting the program on the states. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that a plan like this, which was part of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-WI) budget plan, would either cut the benefit level so low that it wouldn't even meet USDA's definition of a bare-bones diet or would kick more than 8 million vulnerable citizens off of food assistance, resulting in a spike in hunger, particularly among children, the elderly, and disabled Americans.

President Obama has a better plan to have fewer people on food stamps. His plan, the American Jobs Act, would create well-paying jobs by investing in infrastructure and school repair, putting teachers and police officers back to work, creating summer job and internship opportunities for at-risk youth, and working with states and small businesses to create subsidized employment opportunities for low-income and long-term unemployed workers.

Unfortunately the American Jobs Act has been obstructed at every turn. But as primary season progresses, we've had the opportunity to hear Gingrich's plan, the largest item of which is his tax plan, which offers the top 1 percent of Americans an average tax cut of $428,357--a tax break 166 times larger than the one his plan offers the middle fifth of American taxpayers.

One area where Gingrich is correct is that food stamp participation has gone up. And thank goodness. With rising unemployment and a proliferation of low-wage jobs that don't pay enough for a family to consistently put food on the table, you would have otherwise seen a big spike in hunger from the onset of the Great Recession. Thankfully, however, from 2009 to 2011, rates of food insecurity in this country stayed fairly flat, mainly due to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's boost in SNAP and because the food stamp program is responsive enough to keep pace with the rising need. As our economy recovers and more people return to work, SNAP participation is expected to return to its pre-recession levels, the way a program responsive to
recessions is supposed to.

What we ultimately need is the creation of well-paying jobs so that families struggling to put food on the table can join the middle class, and we can have an economy that works for everyone. Let's hope Gingrich sticks to articulating his plans for achieving this rather than his grossly misinformed and highly calculated demagoguery about food-stamp recipients.