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    Tuesday, April 23, 2024

    Food stamps feed unfortunate need

    Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, dismissively refers to the current occupant of the White House as the "food stamp president."

    "The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable," said Mr. Gingrich during a debate in South Carolina.

    It was a cynical statement, one meant to reinforce the stereotype of the unmotivated welfare recipient happy to live off the public dole and depicting President Obama as somehow motivated to swell the ranks of those who need assistance to get enough food.

    The fact is participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) saw a dramatic spike beginning with the Great Recession that began on the watch of President George W. Bush, with participation in the program rising by 45 percent between December 2007 and December 2009.

    About 46 million people now rely on the program, one-in-seven Americans, with the cost increasing from $35 billion in 2008 to about $65 billion last year. The sad reality is that if not for this program, Americans would be witnessing the near starvation and long bread lines depicted in the black-and-white photos from the Great Depression.

    In a front-page story in today's edition, Day staff writer Judy Benson puts a human face on the supplemental food program, which, by the way, now utilizes debit cards, not food stamps, diminishing the opportunities for fraud.

    Wilma Cotto, the survivor of a difficult relationship, uses SNAP to help feed herself and her three boys. She has seen her allocation decrease after finding work, part of the 30 percent of SNAP households that have job income.

    Like the rest of the country, Connecticut and Norwich - the city where Ms. Cotto's family lives - have seen unemployment and lower wages drive up the number of people turning to SNAP. In 2007 about 4,000 Norwich residents were receiving food assistance, a number that now stands at 7,800, nearly double and a staggering amount for a city of about 40,500. Likewise Connecticut residents receiving aid jumped from 195,090 to about 346,500 over that same period.

    A look at the income requirements for the program should dispel any perceptions that it's a handout for those who don't need it. To qualify, an individual's income cannot exceed $14,088 a year, an amount that is 130 percent of the poverty level, though only 14 percent of recipients are above the poverty guideline. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about half of SNAP recipients are children, and about 8 percent elderly.

    Republican House leaders have proposed steep cuts in food stamp spending and making it a block grant program, with state's receiving a set amount regardless of need. In addition to the callousness of this approach, it does not make economic sense. According to Moody Analytics, food stamps increase economic activity by $1.73 for every dollar spent by maintaining a demand for groceries and fueling all the industries that feed off that (no pun intended). Malnutrition does not help an economy. Because people spend all their food stamp money and quickly, SNAP provides the most stimulus of any government assistance program, according to the analysis. By the way, tax cuts yield only a dollar-for-dollar stimulus, according to Moody Analytics.

    The goal should be to lower food stamp demand by creating jobs that pay living wages, not by cutting off people in need. Criticizing the president for not doing enough to revive the economy is fair game. Trying to drag down the president by pitting the middle class against those in need is not.

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