RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here's something that's functioning as a hot button this campaign season - food stamps. Last week in Nevada, Newt Gingrich not only blamed President Obama for a huge expansion of the federal hunger relief program, but also Gingrich's chief Republican rival as well.
NEWT GINGRICH: We now know from Governor Romney, he joins Obama. Obama is big food stamp. He's little food stamp, but they're both - they both think food stamps are OK.
MONTAGNE: The food stamp program has more than doubled in size over the past decade. Here's NPR's David Welna on how it's also become a part of this year's presidential contest.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Newt Gingrich took his presidential campaign to Cincinnati, Ohio yesterday. And just as he has nearly everywhere else he's been in the past eight months, Gingrich once again invoked food stamps to blast President Obama.
GINGRICH: That's why I've said over and over again this is the best food stamp president in American history.
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WELNA: It's a charge the Obama administration is not leaving unanswered. On Monday at a fundraiser in Tallahassee, Vice President Joe Biden called out Gingrich and his supporters.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: These are the same guys calling the president a, you know, a food stamp president - a thinly veiled - I don't know what it is, but it's inappropriate. It's inappropriate.
WELNA: Some in the crowd went further, calling the food stamp label racist. But for Gingrich, calling Mr. Obama the food stamp president has proven a reliable applause line. Nowhere was this more the case than at the rowdy Fox News debate last month in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
GINGRICH: The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.
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WELNA: President Obama responded directly in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer late last month.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First of all, I don't put people on food stamps. People become eligible for food stamps. Second of all, the initial expansion of food-stamp eligibility happened under my Republican predecessor, not under me.
WELNA: In fact, according to Department of Agriculture records, a half million more people were added to the food stamp program under President George W. Bush than the 14.2 million people added during the Obama presidency. In all, more than 46 million people - or one out of seven in the general population - now receive food stamp assistance. The most recent reports show that number actually began to decline last fall. That has not been the case everywhere, however.
Early morning Monday, several dozen people are already waiting for help at the county income support center in Silver Spring, Maryland. Laura Couchman is the lead social worker there.
LAURA COUCHMAN: We've had a lot of new people, people who never thought they'd be here, and we've heard that quite a few times, I never thought I'd see the inside of these doors.
WELNA: One of them is a woman who's just come in.
KISHA CASTILLO: My name's Kisha Castillo, I'm 28, and I do have a job, but currently I'm on maternity leave.
WELNA: Castillo has three small children; their father, she says, is a construction worker who's hasn't had a job in almost three years. After leaving her own job a month ago as a hospital secretary to go on maternity leave, she realized she would have to ask for food stamps.
CASTILLO: It's hard, because you know, you have your pride and, you know, like I said, I'm, I do work but, you know, it's hard for me to kind of suck up my pride and say I need help, but I need help.
WELNA: And what does she think of Gingrich calling Mr. Obama the food stamp president?
CASTILLO: I don't think that's nice.
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CASTILLO: I mean he's trying his best to help the people; he's trying his best to help everybody, you know, to get back on their feet. Everybody doesn't have it, you know, we're all not high class. We're - you know, even we're all not middle class.
WELNA: In fact, about two of every five food stamp recipients live in a household where someone does have a job.
Jim Weill heads the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center.
JIM WEILL: It's not just people who've been unemployed, or who've been unemployed and for a year or two, it's people who are working at minimum wage and have one or two kids, it's parents who can only get part-time work.
WELNA: Weill cites a recent national survey that found more than three quarters of Americans of all political stripes support the food stamp program. Still, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions thinks Gingrich is right to make food stamps an issue.
SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: I think it's a policy of the administration, just get money out of the door to try to stimulate the economy, and not look closely at who's getting it and why they're getting it.
WELNA: Per capita, Sessions' Alabama is one of the top food stamp recipients in the nation; so is Louisiana. But that state's Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, calls Gingrich's food stamps charges unfair.
SENATOR MARY LANDRIEU: It is blaming the victim, and it's making a mockery of some of the most important, I think, social safety net programs in the country.
WELNA: If the aim is to go after government freeloaders, Landrieu adds, take away the special tax loopholes for the rich.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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