Newt Gingrich was for 'food stamps' before he was against them

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Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and now front-running Republican presidential candidate, has made calling Barack Obama the “food stamp president” his calling card. But Republicans, Gingrich included, have had a strong hand in the expansion of food stamp use.

Gingrich claims (falsely, it turns out) that Obama has “put more Americans on food stamps than any other president in history.” (That honor actually goes to George W. Bush.) It’s part of Newt’s larger narrative that “urban” and low income Americans lack worth ethic — they should demand “paychecks, and not be satisfied with food stamps,” and child labor laws should be relaxed to allow their children to learn the value of earning, rather than stealing, a dollar.

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It’s part of Gingrich’s long-running rhetorical drive to push America back to a more “moral” — largely fictional — past; what a 1994 New York Times editorial called Gingrich’s “generalized moral authoritarianism.”

Gingrich’s grandiose pronouncements about food stamps are seen by many as a subtle appeal to racial tribalism among working class whites, who Gingrich might want to note, happen to make up the majority of food stamp recipients in the U.S. But they are also part of a long-running antipathy to federal aid to the poor among some Republicans that predates Newt.

And they fit into a long running battle by Gingrich and his fellow conservatives to begin to dismantle the “welfare state” created by a Democratic president during the New Deal.

An experimental program

Food stamps have their origins, not in “welfare” for the poor, but in federal attempts to help struggling American farmers during the 1930s. Before that time, private charities and the Red Cross were the only entities to provide for needy Americans. The federal government did not provide aid or subsidies to farmers.

After World War II, when agricultural prices collapsed, farmers clamored for federal loan and other assistance. Two Republican presidents during the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, objected to federal intervention in the agricultural sector, fearing it would distort the market. But by 1930, pressure from farmers forced the Hoover administration to create the Farm Board, which started buying up surplus wheat and other products, and storing it.

As the Great Depression set in, Americans grew outraged at the thought of the government buying and storing food in warehouses while people were starving. Distribution of surplus agricultural products, first to feed livestock in drought-affected states in 1932, and later to the unemployed and the poor, was more a public relations plan than an attempt to create government-funded welfare. And even the modest food aid programs that took place in the early years of the Great Depression happened over the objections of conservatives like Hoover, who thought it undermined the spirit of American work ethic and self-reliance.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed that, starting a pilot program in 1939 that allowed Americans to buy coupons that they could use to purchase the surplus food the Agricultural Department was storing. The “food stamps” were bought, say, for $4 — and the buyer received $4 worth of orange stamps that could be used to buy any food item, plus another $2 in blue stamps, which could only be used to buy what the government deemed to be surplus. The “face value plus one half” stamps helped struggling Americans buy more food, but the main beneficiaries were still American farmers, and grocery stores, who profited from the spending.

Republicans helped revive stamps back during the ‘60s

The pilot food stamp program ended in 1943, as World War II brought economic prosperity back to the country. But the idea made a comeback during the late 1960s, as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” The revival was sparked in part by a 1968 CBS News documentary, “Hunger in America,” which pointed out the growing scourge of hunger among American families, including children.

Then-Senator George McGovern said in a 2011 documentary on the 30th anniversary of the 1977 Food Stamp Reform Act, that he watched the 1968 CBS film and was horrified to see a young African-American boy saying that when he had to watch other kids at school eating lunch, while he couldn’t afford to, he felt ashamed.

“It was not that little boy who should be ashamed,” McGovern told the filmmakers. “It was George McGovern, United State Senator, member of the committee on agriculture. So I went to the Senate the very next day and introduced a resolution to create what was the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and for the next ten years that committee led the way to making sure every member of Congress and every American knew about hunger in this country.”

While McGovern chaired the committee, his partner in the effort to change the food stamp system was Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Dole, a conservative Republican, was the ranking member on the committee, and with the help of then-House Speaker Tom Foley, helped craft the Food Stamp Reform Act of 1977, which Dole sponsored in the Senate.

Dole, who in 1996 would be the GOP’s presidential nominee, said the committee understood that poverty and hunger in the U.S. were “widespread” and “needed to be addressed.” And it was largely through Dole’s cooperation, which McGovern called utterly without politics, that the program shifted from one where people purchased food stamps, to one where they got them for free.

“If you didn’t have that money to put up, you weren’t eligible for the program,” Dole said. “That didn’t make any sense to me.”

The “food stamp speaker”?

Newt Gingrich had just completed his second failed run for Congress from a Georgia district stretching from Atlanta to the Alabama border when the Food Stamp Reform Act of 1977 became law.

He finally succeeded in getting elected to Congress in 1978, and became speaker in 1994, after Republicans swept into the majority in the House after decades out of power. Among Gingrich’s proudest efforts: the passage of welfare reform in 1996 after two vetoes by President Bill Clinton.

Among the changes pushed through by Gingrich and his conservative caucus as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, was the replacement of the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, which had been in place since 1935, with something called TANF: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The new program put a five-year limit on cash benefits for needy recipients, imposed tighter limits on who could receive food stamps (most immigrants became ineligible), and most importantly, required welfare recipients to get a job within two years of receiving benefits.

Ironically, Gingrich, a key champion of the work requirement, now claims that poor children don’t see anyone around them working, when by Gingrich’s own design, those on welfare, after the 1996 reforms, are required to work.

Meanwhile, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Gingrich and the Republicans’ crowning achievement also increased Americans’ reliance on food stamps. By restricting the cash assistance available to families, TANF indirectly pushed more working families to rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs — also known as “food stamps” — to fill in the gap.

So despite his zeal to push “personal responsibility” and to force people off welfare, Gingrich, like Dole, may have inadvertently become a Republican godfather of food stamp growth.

Or to put it another way: Gingrich just might have been the “food stamp Speaker of the House.”

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport