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Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich recently offered to attend an NAACP convention to explain why African-Americans “should demand paychecks instead of food stamps.” And he has described President Barack Obama as “the most successful food stamp president in American history.”
While the Republican presidential race has brought the welfare issue to the forefront, critics say it has also resurrected stereotypical images of the black “welfare mother” having out-of-wedlock babies so she can stay home and live large off the taxpayers.
When it comes to welfare, perceptions have often trumped reality. Among the facts:
•Though blacks are disproportionately represented among food stamp recipients, far more whites receive such assistance. When recipients identified themselves by race in 2010, 34 percent were white, 22 percent were black and 16 were percent Hispanic, the Agriculture Department said.
•Food-stamp spending has indeed increased under Obama, but its steady climb began under President George W. Bush.
•Blacks form a slight plurality in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a system that offers cash assistance and is much smaller than the food stamp program. Of families receiving TANF help in 2009, 33 percent were African-American, 31 percent were white and 29 percent were Hispanic.
•Since passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, those seeking cash assistance have faced strict work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit.
•In some welfare categories, rolls have dramatically declined. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the TANF cash assistance program, about 1.9 million families received TANF funds last year, down from a record 5 million families in 1994.
So why has welfare emerged as an issue this election year? Discussions about anti-poverty programs certainly have a place in national campaigns, particularly during tough economic times. But University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson says Gingrich was using welfare as a wedge issue.
“It was a blatant attempt to resort to a 40-year-old tactic to prop up one’s campaign by evoking the black-person-on-welfare trope,” said Dawson, the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. “It’s a tired tactic but one that’s sometimes effective in mobilizing white racial resentment.”
He recalled that in 1976, when Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses, he began talking about a “welfare queen” from Chicago’s South Side. Gingrich’s “paychecks instead of food stamps” comment came after he finished fourth in Iowa. He won Saturday’s South Carolina primary.