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Gingrich's tough talk on food stamps may backfire

Republican presidential hopeful Gingrich talks to supporters during a campaign rally in Tampa
Republican presidential hopeful Gingrich talks to supporters during a campaign rally in Tampa

By Terry Wade

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - It is one of the code phrases of the 2012 presidential campaign: "the food stamp president."

That's what Republican Newt Gingrich calls Democrat Barack Obama in casting the president's economic record as a failure, and bemoaning what Gingrich sees as a poor work ethic among those dependent on government help.

Some see hints of racism in Gingrich's words, which the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker disputes. But such tough talk did help him tap into the anti-government anger of conservative whites in South Carolina and win the presidential primary there on Saturday.

As the campaign moves forward, however, Gingrich's food-stamp imagery might not play as well, political analysts and voters say.

In a nation where millions of families are struggling to get by, most people who depend on food stamps are white, and the vast majority are working or have just lost their jobs, according to government data and program administrators.

One in seven Americans now rely on food stamps, which give low-income people - a family of four with an annual gross income of less than $29,064, for example - help to buy groceries.

In Florida, where the January 31 primary is the next contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican presidential nomination, food stamps are viewed favorably by many residents hit hard by the collapse of the real estate and construction industries.

"I'd say 80 percent of the people are working or just lost their job when they come in for food stamps," said Tom Gundersen, a supervisor for the Florida Department of Children and Families, which administers the federal program here.

"You used to hear all the comments when I was a kid about 'Welfare Cadillacs,' but that's not really something you see much," he said.

More and more food stamp recipients are like Susie, 59, who declined to give her last name at a food stamp office in Jacksonville.

"I am a Republican and a conservative ... and I had to swallow my pride today and come in and apply for benefits for the first time because I'm losing weight," Susie said.

The blonde, blue-eyed mother of grown children looks like a typical consumer at an upscale shopping mall. She said she has suffered a triple whammy since the recession began in 2007 - losing her house, business and marriage.

Susie, who described herself as an undecided voter, said the only work she has been able to find was as a part-time cashier at a Dollar Tree discount store.

Nationally, at least 36 percent of the 46 million people on food stamps are white, 22 percent are black, and 10 percent Hispanic, according to factcheck.org. The race of many participants is unknown.

Non-Hispanic whites make up about 63.7 percent of the U.S. population while blacks make up about 12.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"A RISKY GAMBIT"

Gingrich casts Obama as "the greatest food stamp president in history."

That's not quite true - yet.

During George W. Bush's eight-year presidency 14.7 million people went on the food stamp rolls, a half-million more than in Obama's three years, according to factcheck.org, a nonpartisan group.

Economic times are so tough for many people that Gingrich's strategy of casting food stamps as a negative symbol could backfire, said David Roediger, a historian at the University of Illinois who has written extensively about class and race.

"It's an old appeal but it's a risky gambit. It may work less well now because in this economy so many white people are on food stamps, or know people who are on food stamps, and so many people have difficulty getting a job," Roediger said.

Gingrich has said that "if you want your children to have a life of dependency and food stamps, you have a candidate, it's Barack Obama. If you want your children to have a life of independency and paychecks, you have a candidate, that's Newt Gingrich."

What he doesn't say is that food stamps evolved from a program created in 1939 and that spending on it normally increases when the economy sputters.

Economists say much of the government's welfare spending is countercyclical and helps lift demand in a weak economy.

Many food stamp recipients are members of the working poor stuck in low-wage jobs. They have used public assistance off and on over the years during tough times.

Andrea Chever, 51, quit her job as a housekeeper at a Hyatt hotel last month to qualify for Medicaid, the nation's government-run health program for the poor.

Chever needed a painful cyst removed from her stomach, and she didn't have health insurance at her housekeeping job because the premiums were too expensive.

"I'll go back to work as soon as I can get this surgery done," she said after signing up for benefits.

Kia Goode, 30, who supports Obama, just finished her college degree in computer science and is struggling to find a job.

"We've got to eat," she said, "until somebody can make some money."

(For graphic on food stamp recipients, please click: http://link.reuters.com/tux26s)

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