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Gingrich half-off on food stamps

By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 3:19 AM EST, Tue January 17, 2012

Editor's note: Part of the CNN Republican debate fact-checking series

(CNN) -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked about his previous statements concerning the food stamp program during Monday's presidential debate.

The statement: "The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."

-- Gingrich, responding to a questions about whether his invocation of the federal food-aid program was intended "to belittle the poor and racial minorities," during a Fox News-Wall Street Journal debate for Republican presidential candidates.

The facts:

-- The number of people receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the food stamp program is now known, skyrocketed when the U.S. economy nosedived in 2007 and 2008.

-- In 2007, an average of 26.3 million people received food stamps every month, according to Agriculture Department figures. In 2011, that figure had climbed to 44.7 million, a nearly 70 percent increase.

-- Unemployment roughly doubled during that period and has remained high. More than 42% of unemployed workers have been out of a job for six months or more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 33% during the recession of the early 1980s, when unemployment also topped 10%.

-- With long-term unemployment lingering, the numbers of people receiving food stamps have climbed even though the 2007 recession officially ended in mid-2009.

-- Upon taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration increased benefits and expanded eligibility for food stamps as part of its economic stimulus act. Agriculture Department officials estimated the moves would boost the economy by generating more spending as well as keeping people fed.

-- The trend was up in the years before the recession, however, as reforms enacted in 1998 and 2002 allowed more children, the disabled and elderly and even some immigrants to receive food stamps. Between the 2001 and 2007 recessions, the number of people receiving food stamps grew by more than 8 million, according to the USDA.

-- Gingrich, meanwhile has been criticized not only for singling out Obama as the "food stamp president" but for specifically linking the program to minorities. The NAACP and the National Urban League sharply criticized him for comments in early January that "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps," accusing him of feeding stereotypes about the black poor. In fact, 22% of SNAP recipients are black, compared to 36% for whites, 10% for Latinos and 18% from unknown racial backgrounds.

The verdict: True, but incomplete. The number of people on food stamps is indeed up sharply under the Obama administration. But that's largely the result of the economic crisis that began before Obama took office, though the administration pushed Congress to allow more people onto the program during the crunch.

CNN's Lindsey Knight contributed to this report.

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