Newt Gingrich: Anti-poverty crusader?

The unlikely story of how the man who blasts Obama as a "food stamp president" saved a key Great Society program

Topics: Newt Gingrich, 2012 Elections, Poverty, ,

Newt Gingrich: Anti-poverty crusader? Then House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1996 (Credit: AP)

Newt Gingrich has made criticism of President Obama as a “food stamp president” who wants to “maximize dependency” of the poor on the government one of the central themes of his campaign.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that a top anti-poverty advocate in Washington credits Gingrich with saving an important federal program designed to help the poor.

The episode in question dates back to Gingrich’s time as speaker of the House in the 1990s. During his tenure, Gingrich delivered a $100 million — or more than 25 percent — budget boost to Community Action Agencies (CAA), which use federal dollars on a range of locally controlled community projects designed to help address the causes of poverty.

Federal money to the CAAs goes to projects on education, job training, nutrition and the like. That infusion of money was an about-face from 1995, when the new Republican majority in the House had proposed eliminating funding for Community Action Agencies after they took power under Speaker Gingrich.

“He was helpful,” says David Bradley, the longtime executive director of the National Community Action Foundation, which lobbies for funding for the Community Action Agencies. “I can say very openly, the speaker made a commitment, and he sure kept it.”

Bradley helped draft the 1981 legislation that created the current funding mechanism for the community agencies, which were originally created as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s.

He says the key to winning Gingrich’s support for the anti-poverty program was a March 1996 meeting held just off the House floor. The meeting, which was requested by a handful of Republican members of Congress who supported the Community Action Agencies including Rick Lazio (N.Y.) and Curt Weldon (Pa.), lasted for about 40 minutes, Bradley says.

According to Bradley, Gingrich was impressed by several aspects of the pitch, including that the Community Action Agencies had low administrative costs, were controlled locally and were run by a “tripartite board, made up of one-third elected officials, one-third the poor, and one-third members of the community at large.

“He loved that,” Bradley says. “In the 1960s, bringing the poor to the table was social revolution. In the 1990s, it was empowerment.”

The result was that Gingrich committed to increase the budget for the program from almost $400 million to almost $500 million, a boost that was later enacted in the fiscal year 1997 budget.

Gingrich also appointed Weldon to chair a congressional Anti-Poverty Task Force that was to “work with community-based organizations on expanding the role of the federal government in helping low income communities,” States News Service reported at the time.

“There was interest by a number of Republicans in getting the poverty issues a little higher on the agenda,” Bradley says. “Gingrich put that task force together to look at federal investments and what made sense.”  But, he adds, the effort lost steam when Gingrich stepped down from the speakership and left Congress following the Republican defeats in the 1998 elections.

There may have also been political reasons for Gingrich’s support for the anti-poverty efforts. His image was in need of repair following a politically toxic first year as speaker, including the government shutdowns that were seen as a disaster for the GOP.

In the current election cycle, Gingrich’s most famous statement on poverty was his proposal that low-income schoolchildren take over jobs of unionized janitors. He does, though, talk about the issue much more than Mitt Romney and has released a lengthy policy document on “Moving Beyond the Welfare State.” The details aren’t entirely clear, but the document proposes handing control of federal welfare programs — including the financing of the Community Action Agencies — “back to the states.”

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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