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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have made their feelings clear about government aid under President Obama.

NEWT GINGRICH: More people are on food stamps today because of Obama's policies than ever in history.

MITT ROMNEY: The new entitlement battlefield of this president is over the size of the check you can get from Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

RICK SANTORUM: He is systematically destroying the work ethic. How? By the narcotic of government dependency.

CORNISH: Republicans argue people will get back on their feet more quickly if assistance is limited. But in areas hit hardest by the economic downturn, those getting aid say they have no choice and that it's the only thing keeping their heads above water.

NPR's Pam Fessler has the story of one such community.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: As a young congressman, Rick Santorum opened an office in the economic development building in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He predicted, with a little help, that the city would recover from the devastating loss of thousands of steel mill jobs. That office building 20 years later?

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROADWAY)

FESSLER: Its shut down, abandoned. There's trash in the front foyer, I can see through the glass door. This entire area, almost every store and business is shut down.

McKeesport today is a shadow of its former self. The population, once more than 55,000, is now 19,000. Many here are unemployed. The poverty level is almost twice the national average.

LAURIE MACDONALD: What's mostly left in town are human services organizations and government organizations like, you know, Department of Welfare and things like that.

FESSLER: Laurie Macdonald runs Womansplace, a center for victims of domestic violence. She says many here rely on government support, not because they want to but because they're kind of stuck. Too poor to move, but earning too little to stay.

MACDONALD: Can you imagine making $25,000 a year and you have a family, you have kids, you have a home, you have heating bills. How are you going to make ends meet?

SHERRIE SMITH: They've never lived it, obviously.

FESSLER: Sherri Smith works part-time at Womansplace. She bristles at Santorum calling the help she gets the narcotic of government dependency. Two years ago, Smith fled an abusive and drug-using husband with the clothes on her back and a young son.

SMITH: They don't understand how normal everyday people have to live; how people have to break a penny in half and decide, OK, are we going to have lights this month or are we going to eat? You know, and that's what you have to do.

FESSLER: Smith brings home less than a thousand dollars a month and says without food stamps and medical help, she couldn't keep a roof over her head and go to college.

SMITH: I need the assistance so I can get away from it.

FESSLER: And that, in many ways, is the debate: Is government aid a tool or a crutch? Romney, Santorum and other Republicans say the current system isn't working. They think there should be deadlines and that states should craft their own programs. But that worries people here. Last week, Pennsylvania said it wants to end food stamps for those with more than $2,000 in the bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

STATE SENATOR JIM BREWSTER: This is about a $9 million project to get traffic over the railroad tracks onto the U.S. Steel site.

FESSLER: Jim Brewster, former mayor and now a state senator, says the city is trying to turn things a round. He shows me a new overpass built with federal funds. He says there's been some success. U.S. Steel just opened a new facility here and the city is preparing to drill for natural gas. But Brewster says until more businesses come, what are residents to do?

BREWSTER: We're in a foxhole. We got 19,000 people. We're obligated, by law and by oath, to take care of them and that requires in some cases entitlements. That's not anybody's preference.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Not for your house, not for your car.

FESSLER: Parishioners gather at the Bethlehem Baptist Church downtown for Bible study. People here are frustrated with the tone of the political debate, which seems to them more about pointing fingers than finding an answer.

Parishioner Jamaica Bray is an unemployed, single mother of four who gets food stamps and Medicaid, and lives in public housing.

JAMAICA BRAY: It's like dead ends everywhere you turn.

FESSLER: Right now, she says, she'd take any job. But she also thinks that some people stay on government assistance because there's a disincentive to leave it behind.

BRAY: People look at it like, well, if I'm working and only getting 325 and they done cut my food stamps, they raised my rent. I still got to take care of my kids. I ain't even get on my feet yet, then people say, then I'm not going to work. I may as well stay on welfare. I was getting more while I was on there.

FESSLER: Her pastor, Earline Coleman, thinks people need some help as they're weaned off government aid. She agrees with what Gingrich, Santorum, and the other Republicans say - some people are too dependent and there should be deadlines.

REVEREND EARLINE COLEMAN: You have to have moved on beyond where you are by this date. But I'm also going to walk with you and I'm going to teach you how to get from here to there.

FESSLER: Republicans say ending government aid should be tied to programs, such as job training. But people here want to see specifics. They say they've been abandoned before.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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