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Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich loves to talk about food stamps. And the former House speaker had plenty to say at a campaign appearance in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
"Remember, this is the best food stamp president in history," Gingrich said. "So more Americans today get food stamps than before. And we now give it away as cash -- you don't get food stamps. You get a credit card, and the credit card can be used for anything. We have people who take their food stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii. They give food stamps now to millionaires because, after all, don't you want to be compassionate? You know, the Obama model: isn't there somebody you'd like to give money to this week. That's why we're now going to help bailout Italy because we haven't bailed out enough people this week, the president thought let's write another check. After all, we have so much extra money."
We decided to check three separate claims.
Can food stamps be used for anything? No. The food stamp program, now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has very precise rules about what can and cannot be paid for. Food stamp benefits are now loaded on to an electronic benefits transfer card, or EBT, similar to a debit card. It allows certain types of purchases -- groceries, for instance -- but not unqualified items such as beer and wine.
"We have people who take their food stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii." No. Airline tickets are not a qualified purchase. We did find that St. Louis television station KMOV did an investigative piece looking at the Missouri food stamp system that found that a small amount of Missouri food stamp funds had been spent in Hawaii. Two possible explanations are that they were spent by members of the armed services just transferred there who are permitted to use their Missouri benefits until their Hawaii benefits are set up or that they were spent by migrant workers who spend part of the year in Missouri but do seasonal work in Hawaii.
"They give food stamps now to millionaires." Only those with incomes of no more than 130 percent of the poverty line qualify. That leaves out millionaires. After we published this item we heard back from USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee about one case in which an unemployed Michigan man who won $2 million in the lottery was deemed eligible for food stamps by the state, but he was later removed from the program.
For being wrong in so many ways, we rated Gingrich's statement Pants On Fire.