"More food stamps? Or more paychecks?" Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican Party's best rabble rousers, suggests that's how the GOP should couch the national policy debate in the final four weeks before this November's midterm elections.
According to news website Politico, Gingrich sent a memo to GOP candidates Tuesday suggesting that they frame the election as a "vivid contrast" between the policies of food stamps vs. jobs. In the memo, he links to this recent news of the record 41.3 million Americans receiving federal food aid, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Republicans should craft a "closing argument" this way, writes Gingrich: "This year, the House Republican's Pledge to America has set the stage for a powerful, symbolic closing argument for candidates seeking to unseat the left-wing, big spending, job killing Democrats: paychecks versus food stamps."
And so one of the party's loudest voices creates a new Republican agenda: demonizing the poor.
Trickle-Down Economics: The Sequel
It's certainly true that Republicans have been singing the job-creation tune, but their version of the song includes the chorus that repealing the Bush tax cuts for the 4% of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year would be "job-killing." Repeat that as often as they might, it's hard to figure the math that would demonstrate the cause-and-effect relationship this assertion suggests.
In fact, lack of cash in the system is clearly no longer the main problem on the jobs front. Thanks to corporate stimulus, bailout funds and huge corporate cost-cutting measures (i.e., layoffs), companies now hold a record level of cash and equivalents in their coffers, but new jobs are nowhere to be seen. As Bloomberg Businessweek writer Howard Silverblatt puts it: "Given the current profitability level and environment, the risk-reward trade off appears to support their actions, and until that climate of uncertainty clears up, for better or for worse, increased spending and job creation will be difficult to obtain. And as stated, no jobs means no recovery."
So, even if we had not been convinced by the general agreement among economists that "trickle-down" policies don't work, we now have more proof that simply putting more cash into corporate coffers does not lead to more job creation. This can only be more true when applied to individual wealthy so-called "job creators," who would not, after all, be getting more money, but simply paying the same level of taxes they are now if the Republicans were to prevail on this topic. The Congressional Budget Office supports this viewpoint: As CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf stated in February, "increasing the after-tax income of businesses typically does not create much incentive for them to hire more workers in order to produce more, because production depends principally on their ability to sell their products."
A Decade-Long Rise in Food Stamp Usage
The examples given by Republican campaigners are typically of small-business owners making just over $250,000: These job creators, as the rhetoric goes, are just waiting to gain "certainty" so they can hire more people and, based on Gingrich's logic, pay them enough so that they won't qualify for food stamps -- at least $28,668 for a family of four, plus more for employers' contributions for FICA and, we'd hope, health care and other benefits. So, if you were paying $40,000 or so less in taxes, would you spend it to hire someone?
Whether the answer is "no," "yes" or "maybe if it was under the table," the net of this political spin is that the poor are stigmatized as illegitimate members of society -- even as they are becoming a larger and larger portion of it. When one summarizes an election as food stamp recipients vs. job creators, it's easy to see who the angels and demons are. Those who have seized the American dream and hired another human being -- no matter how much money they're making -- wear the halos. Those who have lost their jobs, or are working under the poverty line, and need federal assistance so badly they're willing to suffer the considerable stigma of being a food stamp recipient, get horns and a barbed tail.
As they say, statistics lie just as well as they tell the truth. While food stamp participation has been rising and rising over the past 10 years -- during the majority of which, let's recall, Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress -- so too has the number of recipient households that get some of their income from paychecks. While this number fell during the 1990s, it has increased more or less steadily since 2000 to peak at 40% in 2008, the most recent data available, says a representative from the USDA, which runs the program.
At Election Time, Money Talks
At a time when 41.3 million Americans are receiving food stamps, labeling that key safety net for the economically disadvantaged as the archetype of wrongheaded policies seems -- well, wrongheaded. Of course, as the USDA representative reminds us, "half of them are children." Food stamps are protecting the future of America -- just not the future of the funding sources for those Republican campaign ads.
And therein may lie the very reason Gingrich finds it acceptable to paint food stamp recipients as abhorrent. It's not really the people who elect candidates any more (that is, not "the people" the way I used to define them -- as individual, corporeal bits of flesh, blood and human fallibility that sometimes leaves them hungry): It's the money. Corporations and those who lead them are the ones who contribute to the political campaigns of both major parties, and now, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, run campaigns independently and without scrutiny.
The poor aren't paying for the campaigns, so it's OK to use them as scapegoats when you trumpet your "closing argument" for the 2010 election. Newt Gingrich may realize this ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy: If it works, no one will care.