When Newt Gingrich labels President Barack Obama the food stamp president and charges that the current president has put more people on food stamps than any other president, he’s not entirely wrong, but he’s not telling the whole story.
It’s true that the most recent figures from the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (provided to Factcheck.org/USA Today) show that a record number of people—some 46.2 million—are enrolled in the program. But the same data shows that more individuals were added to the program while George W. Bush was in office than have enrolled under Obama’s presidency: Under Bush, the program grew by 14.7 million individuals; under Obama so far, it’s grown by 14.2 million, and, as of October, was declining.
So Bush wins on volume, and Obama wins on velocity: In just a few years, President Obama managed to expand the program by nearly as much as Bush. But Obama didn’t do it without some help from his Republican predecessor, who approved policy changes that set the stage for the program’s current growth.
To some extent, the food stamps expansion the country has seen under Obama is how food stamps are supposed to work: It’s a countercyclical program, meaning that as the economy declines, enrollment grows. Typically, then, the program grows in recessions and declines in economic boom times. But with the 2002 farm bill, President Bush dramatically expanded eligibility, restoring benefits to nearly a million individuals at the beginning of 2003, and paving the way for the program to expand as it did during the rest of presidency. As a result, Bush managed to oversee unprecedented growth in the program even as the economy grew. Obama then followed up on this with an eligibility expansion of his own in the 2009 stimulus package.
It’s not unreasonable to criticize Obama for the expansion of the food stamps program under his watch. But Obama's Republican critics shouldn’t forget that it was a GOP president who helped make that expansion possible.
Read Reason columnist Greg Beato on the expansion of the food stamp program here.