Pelosi's Wrong About Gingrich and Food Stamps

Newt Gingrich recently sent a memo to Republican candidates urging that they adopt a "closing argument" of "paychecks versus food stamps." Gingrich noted, correctly, that the food stamp rolls have zoomed up in the recession. In the middle of the 2000-2010 decade there were typically around 25 million Americans on food stamps. Now there are more than 40 million and rising.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi countered with this:

"There is some subliminal message that is being sent out there about us and them, meaning people who need food stamps and the rest of the country, which I think is an unfortunate course to go down."

It seems to me Pelosi has it pretty much 180 degrees wrong. Whether or not you agree with Gingrich--and whether or not his memo represented sound political strategy--his point wasn't about "them." It was about "us."

Gingrich was, first, making the obvious economic point that there are fewer paychecks now than there used to be. As 2010 midterms go, that's a "duh" point, but it's pitched to everyone worried about keeping their job, or worried about friend's job, or looking for a job. In other words, "us," or most of us.

Secondly, Gingrich was charging that the Democrats, and the Obama administration specifically, are too comfortable with a society in which citizens rely on government handouts. He could have extended that to include Tea Partyish fears that the whole economy will come to be dependent on government subsidies, or government industrial policy, or (in the worst case scenario) political favoritism.

This second point—about dependence vs. self-reliance--applies quite precisely to food stamps, which are a form of welfare, or dole, defined as "cash or cash-like assistance the government gives you even if you are able-bodied and whether or not you work or are looking for work." You have to have worked to get unemployment insurance. You have to have worked to get Social Security. Food stamps? Come and get 'em!

In the 1996 welfare reform, liberals and conservatives struck a deal that in theory required "work" for the main welfare program (then called AFDC) but left food stamps largely intact. Since then, Democrats and some centrist, respectable Republicans--and the federal food stamp bureaucracy--have been waging campaigns to sign as many people up for food stamps as possible, overcoming the "stigma" of accepting a dole, fulfilling the "need" that shows up on the experts' income charts. As confirmed by the graph at the bottom of this page from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the sign-em-up campaign—assisted by the vicious recession—has been spectacularly successful of late.

That's what Gingrich is talking about. Do we really want a society in which the stigma of going on the dole has been erased? In this sense he's speaking, not to the 25 million who were on food stamps at the beginning of the recession but the 15 million who've now gone on the rolls and maybe feel guilty about it--and their relatives and neighbors and friends. Us. And not, I think, a black "us" or a Latino "us" or any kind of underclass. He's speaking to veteran middle class polyglot American workers, now in bad economic shape--and asking them if they really want to get comfortable on the dole. And he's playing on their guilt--that lingering stigma.

I confess that—as someone who has long thought food stamps, like AFDC-style welfare, should be scrapped and replaced with a WPA-like guaranteed jobs program—I'm kind of happy at the moment that food stamps are there. We don't have a neo-WPA, after all. Unemployment's near 10%, and unemployment insurance covers way too few of those out of work. People have to eat and it's good to have a last-resort dole they can turn to.

But that doesn't mean the "stigma" of food stamps isn't a good thing too. If Americans are reluctant to go on the dole that's because they have a healthy work ethic. Respecting work means disrespecting non-work, and if food stamps are available to nonworkers they will always be a little unrespectable. People can make their own choices about whether their need overcomes this stigma, without the government egging them on one way or another. The real issue isn't whether food stamp use goes up during a vicious economic slump--that's what they're there for. The issue is whether, thanks to the justified stigma, food stamp use goes down again when the recession ends.

Gingrich, rightly, worries that it won't. It's a valid left-right point of disagreement. A few months ago, I thought I was stacking the deck when I phrased the disagreement like this:

If you came across two societies--Society A, in which food stamps were stigmatized, with families reluctant to go on the dole even if they were eligible, and Society B, in which they weren't, you would want to bet on (and live in) Society A.

To my surprise, blogger Matt Yglesias of the liberal Center for American Progress immediately chimed in on behalf of Society B, if it produced better-nourished children who became a "better-educated workforce" with "lower crime" and "less disabilty."

Well, there you have a choice. What's America's bigger problem--nutrition or character? "Which future do I want?" asks Gingrich. "More food stamps? Or more paychecks?" Society B or Society A? But not "us" versus "them."


*--As elaborated by Pat Buchanan, the anti-food stamp campaign does add a little us-vs-themming:

What we have accepted today is a vast permanent underclass of scores of millions who cannot cope and must be carried by the rest of society – fed, clothed, housed, tutored, medicated at taxpayers' expense for their entire lives. We have a new division in America: those who pay a double fare, and those who forever ride free

But that's a (perfectly valid) old school caboose on the right's new school complaint, which is that now it's "us" on the dole too. . . . 3:24 p.m.