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The Daily Need

Romney, doing damage control, says he supports the safety net for the poor. But does he?

The now infamous Bain Capital photo featuring Mitt Romney. Photo: Bain Capital/The Boston Globe

Mitt Romney attempted to backpedal from his now-infamous statement that he’s “not concerned with the very poor” Tuesday. In an interview with Nevada reporter Jon Ralston, Romney said, “It was a mistake. I misspoke.” But in explaining the comment Romney repeated his assertion, which he has made many times, that the poor are the not the primary focus of his campaign because “we have a safety net that cares for the poor.” Romney added, “I want to keep that safety net strong and able.”

Except, as it turns out, the “safety net” isn’t doing much to help the “very poor,” or keep the numbers of people who qualify as very poor from skyrocketing. And Romney’s proposals would only make the situation worse.

A stunning report released by the National Poverty Center last month suggests that the number of “extremely poor” families — those living on less than $2 a day — has more than doubled since 1996, to 1.46 million. The number of extremely poor children also doubled, to a staggering 2.8 million.

So, have all these families been “taken care of” by the safety net, as Romney suggests? Not quite. An analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities published Tuesday found that the main federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is in tatters. TANF, which was created as part of the 1996 welfare reform act, provides block grants to states to provide cash assistance to needy families.

When the program was first created, TANF provided cash assistance to 68 out of every 100 families with children living in poverty. By 2010, that number had plummeted to just 27. In some states, like Georgia, the number is as low as nine. That means that the “safety net,” as we know it, is only helping about a quarter of families with poor children in America.

The problem, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, is that states shifted TANF money to other purposes when the economy was booming before 2007. When the recession began, many states failed to move the money back so that it could be used to help needy families. The Center also found that TANF’s requirement that states put people back to work created an incentive to ignore the families that needed help the most. “The families that most need help are often the families that states least want to serve,” LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for the Center’s family income support division, wrote in the analysis.

So, are there any safety net programs that are working? Perhaps the most effective of the federal government’s welfare programs has also been the most maligned — food stamps. According to the Center’s analysis, increases in the food stamp program — known officially as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — enacted as part of the Recovery Act by the Obama administration have managed to cut the number of extremely poor families from 1.46 million to roughly 800,000. SNAP benefits have also cut the number of children living in extreme poverty by half, from 2.8 million to 1.4 million. The food stamp program, according to Center’s Stacy Dean, “is a powerful antidote to extreme poverty.”

One would think, then, that Romney, who has assured that he will keep the safety net “strong and able,” would be supportive of a program that cuts the number of needy children in half. Except, as it turns out, not only does Romney not see the “very poor” as important to his campaign, he also wants to cut the food stamps program in order to pay for massive, across-the-board tax cuts. Romney supported the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, which would have slashed $127 billion from the food stamps program over 10 years.

Romney’s plan, in fact, would actually raises taxes on poor and working class Americans, by rolling back tax credits like child tax benefits and the earned income tax credit, and ending the “American Opportunity” tax credit for college education. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, the bottom 40 percent of Americans, or those making under $30,000 a year, would actually pay more in taxes under Romney than they are paying now. The wealthiest Americans, by contrast, would see their after-tax income grow by as much as $6,899 a year. “The wealthy are doing just fine,” Romney said in the interview Tuesday. And they’d be doing even more fine, it turns out, is his economic plan becomes law.

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