Newt Gingrich is playing racial politics and he is playing to win. First he says that Black children should get jobs as janitors (why not suggest they get the same consulting contract he did at Freddie Mac—I’m with Mitt Romney here, what did Gingrich tell Freddie Mac that was worth more than a million dollars). Then he says that he wants to tell the NAACP that we should demand jobs, not food stamps. He so bristles at Fox commentator Juan Williams that he gets a standing O in South Carolina. And he has repeatedly described President Barack Obama as a “food stamp” President. It’s race baiting, pure and simple, and few have called him on it.
The true food stamp story goes something like this. In 2006 just 26.5 million Americans received food stamps. By 2011 the number had spiked to more than 45 million people. This has been the result of the Great Recession that has left at least 13 million people officially unemployed for an average of 40 weeks. Those are the official numbers, but they may be twice as high when we consider the people who have part time work and want full time work and those who have dropped out of the labor market because it costs too much to look for work. President Obama is not a food stamps president; he is a president who inherited an economic crisis. Newt is being extremely disingenuous and extraordinarily racist in his food stamps rap.
While about 14 percent of all of us—one in seven—gets food stamps, in some states the number is as high as one in five. In South Carolina, for example, poverty is greater than it is in the nation and 18.2 percent of South Carolinians get food stamps. The number in Maine is 18.6 percent, in Louisiana 19.2 percent, in Michigan 19.7 percent, in Oregon 20.1 percent, and in Mississippi 20.7 percent. Given the racial dynamics in South Carolina, did Newt decide to show out in a state where there is more poverty than elsewhere, and when the racial resentments (remember I said Confederate flag waving) don’t need much fuel to turn to fire. He got a standing O by pandering to racial stereotypes. And that pandering may well have propelled him into victory.
Newt has managed to paint food stamps as a Black program, partly by describing our president as a “food stamps” president, and partly by putting food stamps in context with the NAACP. But Mr. Gingrich, often touted for his intelligence, must be bright enough to know that most food stamp recipients are not African American. Indeed, according to the Associated Press, 49 percent of food stamp recipients are white, 26 percent are African-American, and 20 percent are Hispanic. Indeed, some of the folks who gave Newt a standing O are food stamp recipients, but they chose to bond with Newt’s racially coded messages instead of their own economic reality.
Poverty has a different face than it has ever had before. People who used to have big jobs and fancy cars are now struggling to make ends meet. People who always struggled are now strangling. More than 2 million families have doubled up in the past year because they needed a family lifeline to save their lives and their worlds. More than 40 percent of African-American children live in poverty. Newt Gingrich would blame the poor for their situation, but the economy that President Obama inherited is an economy that has thrust people into despair. Food stamps are a lifeline for many. How dare candidate Gringrich attack President Obama for providing relief to 45 million Americans!
Most food stamp recipients are people who used to work, and they would, frankly, rather be working than receiving assistance. But they have downsized their lifestyles, their dreams, and their expectations. They are waiting for the job market to roar back. Half of the 45 million are White, and some of them stood to applaud Gingrich. Do they really think that a man who disdains the poor will provide them with a lifeline? Do they really believe that a man who is selling wolf tickets to the NAACP is really concerned with the well being of the least and the left out. The poverty that too many Americans experience is repugnant. The extent to which politicians trivialize such poverty is character revealing. Who will put American back to work? Who will alleviate poverty?
(Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.)