Poor Excuses

OPINION: Recent controversial statements about the poor by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney reveal them as presidential candidates with an incapacity to see beyond their own privileged perspectives.

FECKLESS FRONTRUNNERS: GOP presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the recent Republican debate in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Newscom)

Newt Gingrich thinks poor kids should probably learn to be janitors and that they should definitely eschew any morsel purchased by their parents with food stamps.

Mitt Romney does not lose any sleep over the “very poor.” His priority are the middle-class folks who make up the “heart of America.”

The problem with the rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners is that it distracts from the true question — what will we do about poverty and hunger?

In his specious statements about food stamps (which benefit the working poor as well as those on welfare), Gingrich baits race by declaring the first African American president of the United States the “Food Stamp President.” Oh, loquacious lobbyist who would be Debater-in-Chief, this does not count as an argument, but rather, as an ad hominem attack.

Mitt Romney, feeling his oats after his win in Florida, dissed the downtrodden so as to affirm his solidarity with the middle class. Oh, compassionate corporate man who would be Mormon-in-Chief, this statement amounts to baffling babble. Even low-income Republicans think that Republicans in Congress don’t do enough to help the poor.

Perhaps Mitt and Newt should take a page from a Republican president past.

No, not Ronald Reagan, who was also an expert at proffering dubious depictions of the poor — remember the welfare queen?

I’m talking about Richard Nixon.

Surprised? The summarily dismissed, yet politically complex President Nixon advanced domestic policies benefiting — OMG — the poor!

Nixon delivered an impassioned speech in 1969 touting an end to hunger by — GASP — increasing funding for food stamps.

Nixon propounded a Family Assistance Plan in 1971 that would shore up the safety net by — HOLY SOCIALISM, BATMAN! — providing a guaranteed minimum income.

Perhaps Gingrich’s gaffe would be just another laughable line during a contentious campaign if there were not so many politicians like him willing to punish the poor by cutting food stamps, limiting their use, and imposing drug tests prior to giving needed help.

Perhaps Romney’s remark could be forgiven as an oversight if he hadn’t already articulated the same thing in earlier appearances, indicating that his policies will not reflect the sentiment that we are our brother’s keeper after all.

In a country where 16 million children live in households that are food insecure and 15 percent of Americans receive food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the reductionist rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners should give us pause. Caring for the poor is not a partisan issue. Feeding the hungry is a co-responsibility of caring communities, from the statehouse to the church house.

Don’t fall for the “food stamp” red herring or the “heart of America” trope.

About the author, Larycia A. Hawkins

Dr. Larycia A. Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College. She is a co-editor of the book Religion and American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Her research includes projects exploring black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. Prior to academia, she worked in state government administering federal programs, including the Social Security Disability program and the Community Development Block Grant.