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Donna Hill Staton: Food stamps: Fighting words

Presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich recently inflamed sensibilities by singling out Black Americans in separate attacks on welfare programs. At a campaign stop in Iowa, Santorum stated, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them an opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.”

Gingrich volunteered to address an NAACP convention, “if invited,” on the subject of why “the African-American community should demand paychecks” and not food stamps. He took umbrage when his offer was met, not with appreciation, but deafening criticism.

Gingrich’s thinking on the subject of poverty led to his earlier insensitive labeling of President Obama as the “Food Stamp President” and his pronouncement that children born to single mothers in housing projects (code for black mothers) have no work ethic and should be required to perform clerical and janitorial tasks at their schools to develop one. (Gingrich’s plan also called for firing wage-earners holding the assistant janitorial positions to create jobs for the underage workforce.)

While Santorum retreated from his comment, labeling his videotaped statement a verbal stumble, Gingrich held firm. And judging from the ovation he received from a South Carolina audience when he expressed no regret over having made the provocative statements, Gingrich isn’t singing solo.

Sadly, these comments reflect commonly held views about the poor that lead many to distance themselves from a problem with which they cannot identify. We’ve heard them before: the face of poverty is black or brown, explained by a lack of drive, easily fixed by sheer willpower; welfare programs are disincentives to success.

These injurious stereotypes ignore the saga of black and brown Americans who, throughout our country’s history, have labored at the more menial, labor-intensive positions out of necessity, often working multiple jobs to make ends meet. It also ignores the sizeable growth of the black middle class in the short decades since the repeal of legalized discrimination. More importantly, these racial generalizations demonstrate a lack of understanding of the true demographics of the beneficiaries of America’s social safety net programs and result in misguided and myopic thinking about solutions.

While the poverty rate among blacks and Hispanics remains unconscionably high in proportion to their populations, in fact the majority of the poor, and nearly 50 percent of food stamp recipients, are white.

A 2005 report issued by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute underscores that food stamp programs are particularly critical in rural areas where recipients tend to be children (more than 40 percent), the elderly, disabled, the working poor, and white (53 percent). Nationally, children under 18 and seniors over 65 constitute 22 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of people living in poverty.

Then there are those the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as “food insecure.” They include middle-class families who, after suffering a home foreclosure, job loss or a significant reduction in household income, find themselves turning to food pantries and government assistance programs to make ends meet.

Here’s the takeaway: Food stamps are not the problem. Rather they are a solution to the problem of hunger, itself a byproduct of poverty or income loss. Poverty is not a black American problem, attributable to a cultural indifference to one’s economic condition, contentment with relying on “somebody else’s money” or a nonexistent work ethic. It is an American problem. And portraying it as a consequence of choice, not chance, does little to solve it.

The “Bootstrap” and “Master of Your Fate” pep talks only go so far when, in reality, there are fewer jobs than people who need them, and many available jobs require specific skills in short supply, or pay wages too low to alone sustain a family. Those fancying themselves deep thinkers on the subject of poverty would better expend their intellectual capital focusing on the real issue: “The economy, stupid!”

No doubt, there are some able-bodied people for whom work is a four-letter word; however, there is no evidence that is the case for most who find themselves on the receiving end of assistance. And until we expand the economy to create more jobs for all capable adults seeking employment, improve our transportation infrastructure to narrow the geographic distance for employment opportunities, and provide training to qualify for the jobs that do exist, any disparagement of those falling back on the social safety net programs to sustain themselves and their families is just plain wrong.

Donna Hill Staton is an attorney in Maryland and actively engaged in education policy and other public service initiatives. Ms. Staton is a former circuit court judge and served as Maryland’s Deputy Attorney General from 1997 to 2006. She is a member of The Daily Record’s independent Editorial Advisory Board. The views expressed here are her own. She wishes to thank James B. Astrachan, Elizabeth Kameen and many others for their contributions to this column.