“We are going to have the candidate of food stamps, the finest food stamp president in American history, in Barack Obama, and we are going to have a candidate of paychecks.”
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Dec. 6, 2011, on CNBC
As speaker, Gingrich helped push through the signature welfare overhaul that then President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996. When Clinton, after two vetoes, agreed to accept the legislation, he shrewdly noted that he was eliminating the welfare system forever more as a campaign issue.
“After I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue,” Clinton said. “The two parties cannot attack each other over it.”
Having eliminated welfare as a campaign issue, Gingrich now appears to be trying to breath life into “son of welfare” by attacking President Obama as the “finest food stamp president.” But he has explicitly rejected the idea that this is a no-so-subtle form of racial imagery.
(As is usual, Gingrich’s rhetoric excess got the better of him last month when he also declared people can use food stamps “to go to Hawaii,” a claim that our colleagues at PolitiFact correctly labeled “Pants on Fire.”)
In any case, how accurate is the claim that Obama is “the food-stamp president”?
Officially, the food stamp program is now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes, though most of the benefits go to families with children. (It also has massive support from the farm lobby, which is why GOP efforts to cut it back have often failed.)
Gingrich is correct that the number of people on food stamps has reached an all-time high. Of course, the economic aftershocks of the Great Recession, which was in full force before Obama took office, has a lot to do with that fact. There often is a time lag between when economic disaster strikes and when people begin to apply for food-stamp assistance.
But this increase started in part because of changes in the food stamp program under President George W. Bush, when Congress overrode his veto of the 2008 Farm Bill. That law boosted the purchasing power of food stamps by indexing key elements to inflation.
At the same time, however, Obama’s stimulus bill also temporarily boosted benefits even more. The Obama administration also announced that it was pushing to expand eligibility, in part on the theory that expanding the food stamp program is also good for the economy because the money is quickly spent.
Calling Obama the “finest food stamp president” in history is an example of taking a fact — an all-time high for food stamp recipients — and taking it out of context.
The president is struggling with the aftermath of an economic situation he inherited, while building on food stamp changes that preceded his tenure. We’d almost say this was worth two Pinocchios, but because the Obama administration has pushed to expand enrollment (for apparently sound reasons) we will keep this as a one.
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