With Newt Gingrich throwing around the phrase “food stamp President” like he’s about to drop a new track featuring Kanye with that title, attention is starting to be paid to his claims. Gingrich never tires of calling Barack Obama a food stamp President, saying that the food stamp rolls increased by the highest amount in history under this Administration. As a technical matter, this is not true. George W. Bush actually put more people on food stamps than any President in American history, mainly because of a change to encourage enrollment by state governments during his two terms, as well as the beginnings of the recession.

But that doesn’t totally get at who is responsible for the increase in food stamp benefits. And whoever we can point to as the responsible party should take a bow, because the food stamp program is wildly successful, increasing economic activity, creating jobs and keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.

As Brooks Jackson points out, the economic downturn that began in December 2007 made 4.4 million Americans newly eligible for food stamp benefits. The Obama Adminstration included increased benefit levels in the 2009 stimulus, making the program more attractive and increasing the rolls as well. But there’s a reason that the food stamp program, or SNAP, became a vehicle for direct benefits to poor Americans. It can be traced back to a guy named Newt Gingrich.

In 1996, Gingrich succeeded as House Speaker in passing welfare “reform,” which decimated the welfare program, particularly its ability to respond during times of economic stress. Because TANF (welfare) is block-granted, it cannot increase when more people become eligible for it. As a result, SNAP became one of the easiest ways to provide needed benefits to struggling Americans. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes that “SNAP’s role in the safety net has been all the more important because TANF cash assistance has not been available to many unemployed low-income families.” The 1996 welfare reform made cuts to SNAP, most of which remain. But it’s still expandable during a downturn, unlike TANF. In 2010, 40% of single mothers received food stamps, while only 10% received TANF funds. And this is why SNAP costs increased by 102% during the Great Recession.

In other words, without the “end of welfare as we know it,” nobody would likely have become a food stamp President. The closing of the welfare channel forced an opening of a separate channel to deliver benefits. I suppose the other option is to let the poor starve, which Gingrich must be advancing. But when he talks about “food stamp Presidents,” recognize that he’s responsible.

And he should be thrilled to take the credit! The US Department of Agriculture estimates that $1 spent on food stamps generates $1.79 for the economy, creating economic activity with one of the best multipliers of any federal program. Census data from 2011 shows that SNAP kept 5.1 million Americans out of poverty, including substantial numbers of women and children. It’s a great program that helps the food production industry, keeps struggling families afloat when the economy turns sharply against them, and which has an historically low error rate. Almost all of the benefits get directly to people with a tiny administrative overhead.

Of course, whether or not SNAP is a good program has little to do with the racial overtones of Gingrich’s remarks. He and his allies can object all they want, but he clearly is painting a picture of a “food stamp king” as a mirror to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.” This is ridiculous, primarily because the plurality of food stamp beneficiaries – 36% – are white. But liberals should not shrink from defending SNAP, a massively successful program that helps people in need with a residual economic benefit. If every federal program worked this way, and if we funded them rather than tax cuts, we’d be much better off. So thanks, Newt Gingrich, for building the food stamp program to where it is today.