Rejecting false choices in the economic debate
After his landslide win in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich is attracting both scrutiny and accolades for his campaign rhetoric. Gingrich consistently referred to President Obama as the “best food stamp President in American history” and singled out African Americans as content to live off of food stamps rather than work for a living. At a FOX News debate, Gingrich brought the crowd to their feet (and got a bounce in the polls) by resurrecting the old straw man argument that Republicans believe in hard work while Democrats want people to rely on welfare.
Gingrich is not alone in inaccurately casting the economic debate as a choice between jobs and dependency. Santorum has explicitly used the same theme in his campaign, and Romney implies as much when he presents the election as a choice between so-called free American enterprise and decadent European socialism.
Leaders of both parties agree that the dignity of work is better than living on the dole, but the GOP tactic of pitting employment against the safety net is a false choice that promotes a cruel agenda. Working poor families and people who can’t find jobs shouldn’t go hungry, and protections like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) help ensure that they don’t. If we didn’t expand these critical support lines during economic crises, more people facing dire circumstances through no fault of their own would suffer. Claiming that people would rather live on these meager benefits than work to provide for their families is insulting and dishonest, especially at a time when job seekers outnumber job openings more than 4-to-1. Furthermore, the President and Congressional Democrats have aggressively pushed legislation that would create millions of jobs, only to see their agenda repeatedly blocked by Republicans.
Faith leaders responded to Gingrich’s contemptible campaign rhetoric with a timely rebuke. Following his racially charged statements at the FOX News debate, more than 40 Catholic leaders released an open letter reminding him (and Rick Santorum, who made similar remarks in Iowa) that Church leaders regard racism as an “intrinsic evil” and consistently defend safety net programs. Whether these two Catholic candidates take this reminder to heart remains to be seen.
With jobs and the economy taking center stage in tonight’s State of the Union, we’ll get a closer look at President Obama’s priorities and how his opponents respond. As the economic debate sharpens, we need religious and political leaders who engage this discussion seriously and honestly.