The Food Stamp Fallacy

When will Republicans be honest about who really gets the most out of welfare programs?

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

The leaders of today’s Republican Party are expert storytellers. When it comes to manipulating racial stereotypes for political gain, they are akin to animation artists of the 1920s: coloring the lines in black and white.

Last Thursday Newt Gingrich told a crowd of senior citizens in New Hampshire, “The African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Rick Santorum was even more egregious, claiming he doesn’t “want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money” (although he later claimed that he never intentionally said “black”).

Gingrich’s latest offense comes only weeks after he received widespread criticism for saying that poor children should work as janitors and clean toilets. He specifically made a point of addressing “inner city” youths — which has become conservative code for black and brown people everywhere, from the South to the coasts, the suburbs to the metropolises, regardless of where they actually live.

For some odd reason, this is acceptable rhetoric among the conservative political class. It is especially troubling because every reliable statistic shows that white Americans are the overwhelming beneficiaries of welfare in this country and make up the largest number of those in poverty by a wide and substantial margin. The Republicans’ well-rehearsed lies on the subject have been so effective that people of every hue have come to believe them, feeding widespread ignorance about the true face of poverty and the ever-growing gap between America’s rich and poor.

Perhaps it’s time for a lesson in mathematics and history.

The Myth of the Black Welfare Queen

Ronald Reagan, now lauded as the great Republican demigod, is largely responsible for the GOP’s misguided obsession with framing African Americans as the predominant poor and welfare-dependent. In his 1976 race for the White House, Reagan repeated hyperbolic stories of a woman on the South Side of Chicago who was the quintessential “welfare queen.”

Reagan claimed, “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

Reagan never named the actual woman, but his statement, including the reference to the South Side of Chicago, said it all.