Newt Gingrich, as is his wont, has started a controversy. President Barack Obama, Gingrich has said, is the “best food-stamp president in American history.” And: “He will always prefer a food-stamp economy to a paycheck economy.”

In one town-hall appearance in New Hampshire, Gingrich said he would be happy to address a convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to explain that “the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

The resulting furor has highlighted what Gingrich got wrong. But Gingrich isn’t wrong to be troubled by the extraordinary growth of the federal food-stamp program.

Liberals have taken Gingrich to be promoting and exploiting racist sentiments. In their view, he is insinuating to white voters that a black president is handing out money to idle blacks because he is hostile to working for a living.

I may be naive, or just biased because I’m a conservative, but I’m inclined to take a more charitable view. Gingrich had been making the paychecks-versus-food-stamps contrast for months without referring to race. He may have been -- clumsily -- making the point that policies that weaken the private sector and encourage dependency on government harm blacks more than other Americans. That view may or may not be sound, but it isn’t based on racial animosity.

Stretching the Truth

Gingrich is, however, stretching the truth when he says “the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” The number of people on food stamps -- the program is now officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which makes for an easy abbreviation -- rose by roughly 14.7 million under George W. Bush’s administration and has risen an additional 14.2 million under Obama. (In recent months, the number has been falling.)

Neither administration “put” all those people on food stamps. The sharp recession and weak recovery are responsible for much of the increase. Gingrich, presumably, blames Obama for prolonging the economic pain and thus for indirectly increasing the food-stamp numbers; but that’s not the same thing as saying he directly put people on the program.

Economic weakness, though, isn’t the whole story. For much of the last decade, and with bipartisan support, governments at all levels have sought to reduce the stigma of food stamps and encourage people who are eligible for it to sign up. (“Nutrition is a SNAP!”)

A more troubling reason for the increase is that state governments have found it easy to get their constituents federal money -- that is, money mostly raised from current and future taxpayers in other states -- by making more people eligible for food stamps. According to a mid-2010 report from the Government Accountability Office, 35 states have no limit on the amount of assets a food-stamp recipient can possess. More and more states -- the count was 36 at the time of the report -- are providing “categorical eligibility” for food stamps to anyone who receives welfare services. Merely getting an informational brochure from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program counts as receiving a service.

Another way that states and localities can get federal money flowing to them is by providing token amounts of assistance with home heating bills. Even a dollar of energy subsidies can make someone eligible for food stamps, or increase the benefit level for someone already on SNAP. Vermont, for example, sends $5 checks to public-housing residents, even though their subsidized rent already covers heating, to qualify them for food stamps. Liberal activists call this strategy for getting federal money “heat and eat.”

Change the Rules

It’s hard to blame cash-strapped jurisdictions for using the rules of the program to get what they can for their people. But the rules ought to change. Allowing state officials to raise federal spending at will is a recipe for trouble.

Able-bodied adults on the main welfare program (TANF again) have to abide by work requirements -- they have to work, or look for work, or train to work to receive benefits. This seems like a reasonable condition to apply to the food-stamp program, as well. Some congressional Republicans have advocated this policy, but the Obama administration hasn’t been interested.

Gingrich’s hyperbole, and the reaction to it, shouldn’t obscure the need to reform the food-stamp program as the economy improves. The program ought to be focused on people in real need -- not people who are taking no steps to find work, or who happen to have had minimal contact with the welfare bureaucracy. And changes to the program ought to be accompanied by reforms to programs that raise the price of food. We know that ethanol subsidies boost food prices significantly, for example, even if the exact amount is disputed. Federal dairy policies raise the price of milk: They are designed to do so.

Gingrich promises to be “the best paycheck president in American history” if elected. We could use a “cheaper-food president,” too: one who would stand up to the farm lobby.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net