A lifeless economy is the worst enemy of an incumbent running for reelection, and the unemployed and barely-squeaking-by would seemingly be a natural constituency for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor's austerity campaign makes him a harder sell to the down-and-out, however, as do newly revealed comments by Romney essentially accusing those who pay no income taxes of leeching off the government.
On Tuesday, Romney found the right way to talk about Americans who pay no federal income taxes. During an interview on Fox News, he said, "[T]he problem right now is, you see in this country, so many people have fallen into poverty that they’re not paying taxes. They have to rely on government. And the right course to help them is not just to have government handing out but instead government helping people to get back to good jobs."
He went on, "The numbers on food stamps are really revealing. When the president took office, 32 million people were on food stamps. And now that number is 15 million higher, almost 50% higher. Now, 47 million people on food stamps. You've got Americans falling into poverty under this president."
That's a rhetorical one-two punch, first emphasizing the need for jobs -- a message that resonates at every rung of the economic ladder -- then cite data showing how things are getting worse, not better, under Obama.
Granted, the food-stamp issue could be problematic for Romney too. Republicans have proposed to cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by narrowing eligibility for benefits. But despite the broadened eligibility requirements, the typical food-stamp recipient today isn't better off than the ones in the years before the requirements were changed. The recipients' average gross income is lower than in the past two recessions, and the average net income is significantly lower.
The right-of-center Manhattan Institute released a report Tuesday by economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth that notes a couple of troubling things about the current food-stamp program. First, nearly one in seven Americans receives food stamps today, a record for "non-emergency" times. And second, the percentage receiving food stamps has increased more than in other downturns in the past 30 years.
Furchtgott-Roth argues, "The prolonged unemployment effects of the 2007–09 recession are partly responsible for the growth in current food stamp usage, but cannot fully explain it. More likely, increased eligibility, income deductions, and benefit levels have precipitated unprecedented growth in the program."
The problem with her analysis, though, is that it assumes that food-stamp participation rates would look more like those in previous recessions if not for the changes in eligibility. Not only is the current downturn significantly deeper than any since the Great Depression, it's fundamentally different from the typical business-cycle-driven recession. The latter typically have "v-shaped" recoveries, where economic growth rebounds sharply. That's not happening now; as economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have noted, it typically takes years for countries to recover from financial collapses such as the one we went through in the late 2000s.
There may be something else at work too. In the mid-2000s, while the economy was growing and before the latest increases in food-stamp eligibility, the Agriculture Department found that more families were coming onto the program, receiving aid for longer periods of time, and returning to the program more often after leaving it. Those statistics may reflect the comparatively small number of jobs created during the recovery; another factor may be the slide in the median income.
At any rate, Furchtgott-Roth concludes her report by asking a good question: "Does 15% of our population truly qualify as the neediest among us?" Romney's newly revealed remarks at a Florida fundraiser suggest that his answer to that question would be different from Obama's. But on Tuesday, Romney tried to keep voters' focus on a slightly different version of the same question: why is 15% of the population still on food stamps?
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