Gingrich Food Stamp Remarks Reflect Common, Harmful Misconceptions

The 2012 GOP primary race has produced a lot of controversial sound bites, but perhaps the most ubiquitous in the past two weeks came from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, when he said that if the NAACP invited him, he would “go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

The NAACP responded almost immediately, pointing out that, “The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job,” and that although Gingrich was invited several times to the NAACP’s annual convention while he was serving as Speaker of the House, he has never attended.

Weeks later, a sad but powerful piece by The Grio allowed food stamp recipients – many of whom did not receive, or need, nutrition assistance before the recession – to share their own reactions to these remarks.

“I pay taxes. I don’t steal anything from the government.” Said Linda Miles, an African-American woman who also happens to be a veteran with a Master’s degree. While looking for a permanent job, Miles has taken an unpaid internship and become certified to work in early childhood care, and adds, “I’m not one of these people who sit on their butt and just collect a check. I’ve got a resume three pages long.”

“I’d rather work than be on food stamps, but, I mean, my body says no.” Explained Russell Johnson, who worked in refrigeration before being injured. “If I sit for too long, my back starts hurting and my leg goes numb. If I stand too long, the same old thing. And if I walk too much, my legs give out like they ain’t even there.”

Josephine Gonzales, who was employed before her pregnancy but unable to find work after giving birth, described her food assistance as “A way to survive.”

“Instead of spending the little cash I have on food, I can spend it on diapers and other things for my baby,” she said. “It’s just a small help. It’s not making our lives luxurious.”

To those familiar with the realities of poverty and food insecurity in America, that a recipient would feel compelled to explain that food stamps don’t buy a life of luxury seems a bit strange – one would think it obvious that people who receive government assistance aren’t exactly “living large.” But with his remarks about food stamps – particularly food stamps and the African-American community – Gingrich is building on the foundation President Ronald Reagan laid when he invented the “welfare queen.”

The phrase “welfare queen” has decidedly ignoble origins. During his administration, President Reagan often illustrated the need for welfare reform by telling the story of a “Chicago welfare queen” who collected over $150,000 from the government using “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards, and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” He continued to refer to this woman as a classic example of welfare abuse in America even after the press corrected him that the woman he was referring to was convicted in 1977 of using two names in order to collect $8,000.

Despite the welfare queen’s nonexistence, for decades she has been a powerful tool for stirring up middle-class resentment against government aid recipients.  Likewise, Newt Gingrich’s remarks about the value of the paycheck over the food stamp reinforce the idea that welfare recipients are accepting government aid in place of paid employment, when in reality it is most often used to supplement insufficient paychecks.

The widespread myth that people living in poverty are simply unmotivated and won’t work as long as they’re receiving government assistance, encourages Americans to support slashing safety net programs that, in actuality,  enable thousands of Americans with jobs to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

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