Fact Checking Newt Gingrich’s Food Stamps Claims

Dec 2, 2011 7:00am

Food stamps is the latest program to be targeted by Newt Gingrich, but the 2012 candidate’s assertions about the program aren’t quite on the mark.

Speaking in Iowa on Wednesday, the former Speaker railed against food stamps, one of the federal government’s assistance programs to help low-income and jobless Americans.

“This is the best food stamp president in history. So more Americans now get food stamps therefore and we now give it away as cash,” Gingrich said of President Obama. “You don’t get food stamps. You get a credit card and the credit card can be used for anything. We’ve had people take their food stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii.”

“And you know, they give food stamps now to millionaires. Because after all, don’t you want to be compassionate?” he continued. “You know the Obama model, isn’t there somebody you’d like to give money to this week?”

This isn’t the first time Gingrich has dubbed Obama the “food stamp president.” But the former Speaker’s comments on the program itself are only half correct.

It is true that the number of Americans who rely on food stamps is at a record high. Nearly 46 million Americans received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as food stamps — this year, the highest number in recorded history. But experts attribute that mainly to the weak economy and high unemployment. Additionally, George W. Bush’s administration expanded eligibility for food stamps to get more Americans to apply, which also contributed to an increase in recipients.

“It’s hard to determine how much blame Obama deserves compared to his predecessor, President George W. Bush, but the experts we spoke to, conservative and liberal, agree Obama inherited a serious situation,” Politifact said in a fact check earlier this year. “The experts we spoke to agreed that both policies began under Bush but were retained by Obama.”

The idea that administrators are not working to cut fraud can also be challenged.

The Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, contracts with a computer firm to analyze food stamp purchases to root out fraud, for which it has received kudos from the Government Accountability Office. USDA says it uses an electronic anti-fraud system to monitor electronic transaction activity and identify suspicious stores for analysis and investigation, which has helped it catch more fraud cases.

The USDA estimates that payment accuracy is at a record high of 96 percent.

The agency “has taken advantage of electronic benefit transfer to reduce fraud, and in response to prior GAO recommendations, has implemented new technology and categorized stores based on risk to improve its ability to detect trafficking and disqualify retailers who traffic,” stated a July 2010 report by the GAO.

As for Iowa specifically, this year it became the fifth most improved state in reining in fraud.

While fraud remains a significant problem, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, the government has made a series of busts recently that were targeted at eliminating practices such as trading food stamps for cash or using that money to buy beer and other inappropriate goods.

The rate of fraud has continued to decline over the last decade, dropping by 56 percent from 1999 to 2009, to a record low, according to the GAO. The national rate of fraud dropped from about 4 cents per dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent per dollar in 2008, the USDA estimated.

But it remains a significant concern, given the record number of people who now rely on food stamps.

Fraud in the program is also not just a federal government issue. The problem also lies within states, each of which has a different requirement for who receives such benefits. In 35 states, people can get food stamps even if they don’t partake in any other assistance programs.

States are also responsible for targeting fraud by recipients, while the federal government monitors such misdemeanors on the retail side.

Gingrich’s comments Tuesday elicited some laughter, but there was one Iowan who wasn’t clapping.

“You don’t always tell the truth, Mr. Gingrich, and that food stamp thing is one of them,” Don Brantz of Mineola, Iowa, said, confronting the candidate as he left the event.

“Iowa already has a computer system. We do not pay money so the people on food stamps can buy beer and anything else,” he continued. “It’s a very specific thing.”

As Speaker, Gingrich supported turning food stamps into a block grant program.

ABC News’ Brian Hartman and Elicia Dover contributed to this report.

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