David Goldman, Associated Press
Kenneth Dansby, center, of Greenville, S.C., is fist-bumped by Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at a campaign event after Dansby confronted Santorum on a recent comment about black people that has been criticized as being racially insensitive Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Greenville, S.C. Both Newt Gingrich and Santorum faced criticism this week when they spoke of overhauling food stamps and other welfare programs by seeming to equate food stamp recipients and blacks.

WASHINGTON — This year's Republican presidential candidates are using domestic food aid as an example of a welfare state gone awry.

Supporters of the program say it is one of the most reliable safety nets for families who find themselves unable to pay for food, and politically the program has proved almost untouchable over many decades.

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich say the government should stop and convert food stamp spending to block grants to states, a move that could freeze spending and cut the benefit to many who now receive it.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, were both heavily involved in congressional welfare reform efforts in the mid-1990s