Racial drama from the presidential campaign seems never ending. At the center is government benefits programs. Rick Santorum was clearly caught on video connecting a general discussion about benefits solely to African-Americans.

Now Santorum is saying that he didn’t make the comment at all, it just sounded like he did, and by the way he has worked with black people. And then there’s Newt Gingrich who just reentered the fray to say that he was going to tell the NAACP convention to demand paychecks not food stamps. Since they and others like the CBC have been laser-focused on jobs, I wonder how they will receive Gingrich’s suggestion that he needs to guide them in that direction?

So did it just sound like Santorum said “black” when he really didn’t? Or were Gingrich’s comments just misunderstood? It’s hard to give these candidates the benefit of the doubt given the decades old tactic of connecting black people (and persistent negative stereotypes about them) to government benefits has been used as a tool to get Americans to hate those programs. However, these two are a little unusual. Most politicians don’t directly say they are talking about black people, they just insinuate it.

Is this tactic offensive? Yes. Should we call it out as such? Yes. But that’s just a part of what should be said. Most of the attention should be on the underlying issue of conservatives wanting to belittle and destroy government programs serving middle- and low-income people of all races — even if it means misleading the American people.

This includes promoting the falsehood that public benefits are for black people. In reality, white people are the majority of public benefit recipients since they are the nation’s largest racial group. At the same time, black people are more likely to be poor with the result being elevated participation in poverty programs.

Take SNAP (also known as food stamps) for example, 36 percent of participants are white while 22 percent are black even though we are only about 13 percent of the population.
But the distortions aren’t limited to racial counts. According to Santorum, he didn’t want to help people by “giving them somebody else’s money.” In reality, most people receiving public benefits aren’t collecting somebody else’s money, but their own.

Sixty percent of federal dollars paid out to individuals is for social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance — beneficiaries (and their employers) pay taxes out of each of their paychecks that are specifically designated for those programs.

And then there is conservatives’ frequent need to connect public benefits to the stereotype of people who don’t want to work. Realistically, talking about public benefits largely means talking about senior citizens who have already completed a lifetime’s worth of work.

Fifty-five percent of federal dollars going to individuals are for Social Security and Medicare. The elderly and people with disabilities are also a huge chunk of those benefiting from programs for the poor. Those two groups are 36 percent f of households on SNAP and 49 percent of those receiving housing assistance.

Of course there are beneficiaries who are able to work but we can’t assume that it’s because they don’t want to, especially when the economic is not at its best. Besides, there is little incentive for choosing not to work in order to collect benefits.

UI and TANF (formerly AFDC) are time limited and realistically pay amounts so small it’s basically impossible to live on them. It’s also misleading when conservatives say these programs are a huge drain on public resources — UI and TANF represent only 4 percent of federal spending.

Conversations about race-baiting are important. However, the root issue should not be ignored — the need to rally against broad-based efforts to mislead Americans and promote a radically different vision of government that gives significant tax breaks to the wealthy while leaving elderly, disabled, middle class, and poor people of all races out in the cold in a way that has been unheard of in modern American history.