Forget about racism. By denigrating food stamps, Newt attacks all poor people regardless of race

February 8, 2012

Newt Gingrich has persisted in calling President Obama the “food stamp” president, despite the fact that more people went on food stamps during Bush II’s presidency than during the Obama presidency. 

What I find interesting is how many people, both conservative and progressive, assume that the statement is inherently racist. And behind the assumption of racism stands two other assumptions:

  1. That African-Americans get food stamps disproportionately (which is not true according to all statistical evidence: about 30% of African-Americans are poor and about 30% receive food stamps).
  2. That getting food stamps is a bad thing.

Here is sample quote from this morning’s National Public Radio report on Gingrich’s campaign against food stamps: “Obama is big food stamps. Romney is little food stamps. But they both think food stamps are okay.”

But how can food stamps not be okay if one out of every seven Americans depends on them for their sustenance? Something involving 14% of the population is normal, and normal is okay.

What’s not okay is the state of the economy which has led to so many people meeting the very strict requirements for receiving food stamps. 

Newt is careful to make sure that his labeling of Obama as the ”food stamp president” comes inside statements related to the sad state of the economy. In fact, he uses food stamps as the primary measure of economic well-being, not unemployment, nor average wages, nor per capita gross domestic product. Thus the negativity we feel about the recession focuses not on measuring economic weakness but on measuring the help the government gives to allay the misery that the recession has caused. 

Gingrich attaches a negative moral value to receiving food stamps and to giving them as well, since the giver, i.e., the federal government, serves to enable the recipients in their moral failure. This “blame the victim” mentality has had a place in conservative propaganda ever since the late 1960’s when the news media’s coverage of the civil rights movement made people believe, wrongly, that the victims of poverty were primarily people of color.  

Besides revealing hard hearts, Gingrich, Santorum and their ilk fail to realize that food stamps represent a tremendous injection of cash into the economy since every penny given to food stamp recipients is spent, primarily on American products, since the United States is still the bread basket of the world, the greatest agricultural nation in history. 

Conservatives would rather we cut taxes on businesses, which they incorrectly argue will give businesses more money to create more jobs. The trouble with cutting food stamps so we can cut business taxes is that with fewer people spending food stamp money, the market will be smaller and businesses will have less reason to invest. It’s unimaginable that every cent of a tax cut would go to creating more jobs and nothing to greater profit to the business owner. Past tax cuts suggest that much of the cut goes directly to the owners and shareholders.

But that’s not what people are thinking about when Gingrich slams food stamps and Democrats react.

The more Newt harps on the “food stamp president” issue, the more ingrained in people’s minds becomes the idea that food stamps recipients are bad. The Democrats, progressive and African-American leaders all do themselves a disservice by playing Newt’s game because it’s win-win for Newt. Gingrich doesn’t risk many votes by denigrating food stamps, but he does set the terms of the conversation, and one of those terms is the idea that receiving food stamps is both a moral failure and a drag on the economy.

My advice to progressives: When conservatives start to moan about food stamps, forget the race card and directly accuse them of blaming the victim. Say something like, “You show no sympathy for the victims of the recession. We’re talking about meeting basic food needs. We may disagree about how to the improve the economy and create more jobs but how can we possibly disagree about the need to keep fellow Americans from starving?

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