The War on Food Stamps

With the 2012 elections ten months away, nobody can say for sure what the winning issues will be. But it?s clear that Republicans are betting that they can tie President Obama to the federal food stamp program that now helps feed 46 million Americans, and thereby put him on the defensive.

South Carolina primary winner Newt Gingrich has labeled Obama ?the food stamp president.? Iowa primary winner Rick Santorum has followed a similar course, criticizing welfare spending that ?makes black people?s lives better by giving them somebody else?s money? and comparing food stamps to welfare programs in fascist Italy. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, has gone out of his way to stigmatize food stamps by requiring food stamp recipients to be fingerprinted in order to get their benefits.

The Republican strategy has its roots in Ronald Reagan?s 1976 bid for the presidency, when he made a black Chicago ?welfare queen? the centerpiece of his campaign against the welfare state. She was, Reagan told audiences, a woman with ?eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards.?

Reagan was defeated for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, but his attack on welfare paid off four years later. Targeting families using food stamps in the midst of America?s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, however, is a different story. Republicans may well have pulled a Herbert Hoover rather than a Ronald Reagan out of their bag of tricks in attacking a program that dates back to 1939.

Food stamp demographics don?t fit the stereotype Republicans present. Currently, 41 percent of food stamp recipients come from a household with earnings from a job (the ?working poor?); 36 percent are white, 22 percent are African American, and 10 percent are Hispanic. To qualify for food stamps a family of four needs an income at or below 130 percent of the official poverty level ($29,000) and savings of less than $2,000. According to the latest figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, 38 percent of those eligible for food stamps still don?t take advantage of them.

These days food stamp recipients get a plastic Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which acts like a debit card, rather than paper coupons. Even so, many food stamp recipients don?t feel good about using the EBT card, especially when it exposes them to stares in the supermarket checkout line. Only time will tell whether the Republican strategy of trying to make them feel even worse will be as successful in the national elections as it was in the South Carolina primary.