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Robert Reich

Obama is no 'food stamp president'

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich agree that President Obama is turning America into “European-style welfare culture,” pointing to a rise in the number of citizens relying on federal aid. Here's why they have it backwards.

By Guest blogger / February 2, 2012

President Obama speaks at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. Reich argues that the rise in federal aid dependency is not the reason for our economic problems.

Cliff Owen/AP

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One of the few things Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich agree on is that President Obama is turning America into “European-style welfare culture.”

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Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His new movie, "Inequality for All," is available on Netflix. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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In his standard stump speech Romney charges Obama with creating a nation of dependents. “Over the past three years Barack Obama has been replacing our merit-based society with an entitlement society.”

Gingrich calls Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history.”

What’s their evidence? Both rely on federal budget data showing direct payments to individuals shot up by almost $600 billion, a 32 percent increase, since the start of 2009.

They also point to Census data showing that 49 percent of Americans now live in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit – Social Security, food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or subsidized housing. That’s up from 44 percent in 2008.

Finally, they trumpet Social Security Administration figures showing that the number of people on Social Security disability jumped 10 percent in Obama’s first two years in office.

They argue our economic problems stem from this sharp rise in “dependency.” Get rid of these benefits and people will work harder.

But they have cause and effect backwards. The reason for the rise in food stamps, unemployment insurance, and other safety-net programs is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands they could get.

If anything, America’s safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. That’s why the number and percentage of Americans in poverty has increased dramatically over the past three years. According to a study by Northeastern University,  a third of families with young children are now in poverty.

This is the real scandal. For example, only 40 percent of the unemployed qualify for unemployment benefits because they weren’t working full time or long enough on a single job before they were canned. The unemployment system doesn’t take account of the fact that a large portion of the workforce typically works part time on several jobs, and moves from job to job.

Republicans also object to Obama’s health care law, which covers 30 million more Americans than were covered before. That law still leaves over 20 million without health insurance. They’ll get emergency care when they’re in dire straights — hospitals won’t refuse them — but we all end up paying indirectly.  

Regressive Republicans pretend they’re about opportunity. In reality they’re back at what they’ve been doing for years — promoting Social Darwinism.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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