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During the Jan. 16, 2012, Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich resurrected one of his favorite attack lines against President Barack Obama -- that food stamp usage has peaked under the current president.
Calling Obama the "best food stamp president in American history," Gingrich said that "more people have been put on food stamps under Barack Obama than anyone in American history."
We addressed a similar comment by Gingrich in May 2011 and thought it would be worth an update.
We’ll start by noting that "food stamps" -- which provide qualifying, low-income Americans with vouchers to buy groceries -- have officially been known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, since October 2008, although many people still use the informal name.
It’s possible to interpret Gingrich's statement that "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history" as suggesting that Obama is forcing people into the program. In fact, it’s a voluntary program.
In any case, here are the historical data:
For the most recent month with available data -- October 2011 -- roughly 46.2 million people received SNAP benefits. That’s down slightly from September 2011, when 46.3 million people received benefits, but those two months were the highest in history. The trendline shows consistent increases in the numbers of Americans receiving SNAP benefits: 30.8 million in October 2008, 37.7 million in October 2009, and 43.2 million in October 2010.
In addition, the average number of people on SNAP every month hit a record high in 2011 -- 44.7 million. It’s risen every year since 2007.
We also checked to make sure that this wasn’t influenced by population growth, and it wasn’t. Currently, about 14 percent of the population is on food stamps. In 1994, the highest year for SNAP use prior to the recession that began in December 2007, the rate was 10.5 percent.
So Gingrich is correct that food stamp use is at its highest level in both raw numbers and as a percentage of the U.S. population since the program began in 1969.
Case closed? Not quite. Gingrich’s talking point implies that this is Obama’s fault.
Clearly, the rise in food stamps is a direct consequence of the most recent recession, which began more than a year before Obama took office. It’s impossible to know how high SNAP usage would have gone had the Republicans, rather than Obama, shaped policy in 2009 and 2010.
On the one hand, SNAP usage has continued to climb almost every month of the Obama presidency despite some signs of an economic recovery. So Gingrich’s charge cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.
On the other hand, there is typically a lag time before an upturn in the broader economy begins to show up in decreased SNAP usage. The previous high from 1994, for instance, came following a recession that officially ended in mid 1991 -- and that recession was much milder than the most recent one. This makes it harder to divvy up the blame.
One last point: The number of food stamp beneficiaries had started to head upward under President George W. Bush, partly because of more aggressive efforts to get eligible Americans to apply for benefits, and partly because of changes in the rules that had the effect of broadening eligibility. The experts we spoke to agreed that both policies began under Bush but were retained by Obama.
The changes produced consistent increases in the number of average monthly beneficiaries. The number rose in seven out of the eight years of Bush’s presidency -- most of which were years not considered recessionary. All told, the number of recipients rose by a cumulative 63 percent during Bush’s eight-year presidency.
The number of SNAP beneficiaries is at a record level, and it has risen in most months of the Obama presidency. But Gingrich oversimplifies when he suggests that Obama is the root cause. Much of the reason for the increase was a combination of the economic problems Obama inherited combined with a longstanding upward trend from policy changes. But Obama has supported those policies. On balance, we rate Gingrich’s statement Half True.
Newt Gingrich, comments at a Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Jan. 16, 2012 (transcript from CQ, subscribers only)
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, monthly statistics for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Oct. 2007 to Oct. 2011
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, annual statistics for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, 1969 to 2011
U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates -- Historical Data, accessed Jan. 16, 2012
National Bureau of Economic Research, "US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions," accessed Jan. 16, 2012
PolitiFact, "Newt Gingrich defends calling Barack Obama 'food stamp president,'" May 16, 2011
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