Week in review: Food stamp use on the rise

Is Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich justified in calling President Obama the "Food Stamp President?"

Tess Vigeland: Time to hit the rewind button on the week that was. And of all things, food stamps became a hot topic in the presidential campaign this week. During a Republican debate in South Carolina, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich repeated this claim.

New Gingrich: More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.

Applause

Gingrich and other Republican candidates say the current administration's policies encourage Americans to become dependent on government welfare programs. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale is here to check in on that story. Hey John.

John Dimsdale: Hello Tess.

Vigeland: So first I have to ask you if it's nice finally having more people around town these days, now with Congress getting back into session? Or is it kinda nice when they're gone?

Dimsdale: It's actually nicer when they're gone. You can find parking spaces, a seat on the Metro.

Vigeland: But at least there is some news to be made at this point. And Newt Gingrich certainly made some news this week with what he said about President Barack Obama being the Food Stamp President. What did you find in your reporting about this?

Dimsdale: Well, 45 million Americans are getting food stamps now. And the cost to tax payers if $75 billion a year, and that cost has doubled since 2008. These are all record levels. And I discovered that food aid is hardly just a welfare program; nearly a third of the people who are eligible for food stamps have a job. But they don't earn enough to food themselves. For example, there's Melissa Cahill, a 24-year-old single mother in Derry, N.H. She and her daughter have been getting food stamps for five years now, despite Melissa's job at a restaurant.

Melissa Cahill: I'm only workin' part-time right now, and I pay my own rent and bills and gas and all that stuff. I wouldn't have any money at the end of my paycheck to buy food for me and her, so it does help me out a lot.

Vigeland: And John, as you mentioned, those numbers, as you say, have doubled since 2008. Well that certainly coincides right there with the economic crisis, doesn't it?

Dimsdale: Absolutely. This is economically driven. These people are earning between $130 to $200 a month and JoEllen Ringer in Boise, Idaho is another food stamp recipient I talked to. She told me, you know, that doesn't go very far. She was a recipient for nine months after she lost her job in 2008.

JoEllen Ringer: I bought no meat at all, no chips, no candy. I just bought cans of stew, cans of soup, stretching it as carefully as I could, because $136 does not go very far.

Dimsdale: And right now, she's volunteering at her local food bank in Boise, where she's seen the clientele increase dramatically.

Ringer: Do you think they're welfare bums? They aren't. They've worked hard all their life and they have never ever needed or wanted government help. This is a pretty proud state of self-starters, pretty ornery about government interference in any way, shape or form. And it's shameful to need government help in any way. When you don't have a job, your pride's kinda gone.

Vigeland: So John, she has gone from being a food stamp recipient to now working at a local food bank?

Dimsdale: She volunteers at the food bank.

Vigeland: Wow. John, really interesting stories there.

Dimsdale: It's a real different story from what the Republican candidates for president are charging that this is too much dependence on government welfare.

Vigeland: Well, let's move on to another topic that came up in Washington this week, which is the housing situation, which has obviously been a complicating factor for a lot of folks out there. And it seems that the government may be close to a deal with the banks that could help avoid some foreclosures?

Dimsdale: Yeah. This has been a long time coming. Federal and state governments have been negotiating for over a year with the banks and other mortgage lenders over the way they mishandled foreclosures. Remember all those robo-signing scandals last year? Well, this settlement will force the lenders to reduce the actual principal of their loans, something that they've been very reluctant to do. But it's a recognition that since 2007, there's been a 30 percent average decline in home values.

Vigeland: But we don't have a deal on that yet, right?

Dimsdale: Right. And it's so sensitive, because so many people who've been struggling figure they deserve a break, especially if they find out if the neighbors got a better deal. There's gonna be a whole complicated set of rules for who's the most deserving, there's probably some complicated income thresholds, personal worth, credit scores and the like. But the White House says the deal should help prevent more than a million foreclosures.

Vigeland: We'll wait for final resolution on that. Meantime, our John Dimsdale joining us from our Washington bureau. Thanks so much.

Dimsdale: You're welcome.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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