Paging Mitt Romney: Here are the Holes in the Safety Net

Recap from It's a Free Country.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Mitt Romney says if the safety net for the very poor needs repair, he'll fix it. Melissa Boteach, poverty expert and manager of the Half in Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, offered suggestions on where to start.

Should Romney be concerned?

"I'm not concerned about the very poor," was the political shot heard round the world this week, courtesy of one Willard Mitt Romney. "We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it."

Watching the full clip, it's clear what Mitt means to say: there are programs in place to help the poorest Americans; the rich don't need any help from the government; so I'm concerned with helping middle income Americans, who don't seem to get any help.

On its own, though, it sounds like another in a long string of gaffes ("I like being able to fire people"; "Ten thousand dollars?") that have painted Romney into the out-of-touch-rich-guy corner, which he's been meaning to escape for a while now.

Is Mitt right? Is there a proper safety net for the poor? Does it do what it's supposed to do? Are there holes? And if so, where?

Here a hole, there a hole

Melissa Boteach of the Half in Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress Action Fund said that some areas of the net are stronger than others. Certain programs, like affordable housing initiatives and energy assistance, are funded through discretionary spending that Congress allocates each year, and didn't keep up with demand as the recession deepened.

There is not a single congressional district in the entire country where a full-time minimum wage worker with kids can afford fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment. Only one in four people across the country gets any kind of housing assistance, and the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher is often so long that they're closed.

That's one place where there's a hole, but there are other places where Boteach said there actually was a responsive safety net that Governor Romney has proposed to slash.

Because of the increase in the food stamp program from the Recovery Act, hunger didn't really rise during the recession, despite increased poverty and unemployment. We need to be talking about things when they're working; unfortunately, Governor Romney has endorsed cutting $127 billion from the program, which would kick about 8 million people off of food stamps.

The (offensive) 'hammock' analogy

Callers offered their experience with other holes in the net: dentists not taking Medicaid; food stamps not providing enough of a daily allowance to afford fruits and vegetables; subsidized child care not available to a parent for the duration of their undergraduate education.

Many of these anecdotes gave the lie to a common political interpretation of why people are poor and how they remain that way: the social safety net, instead of getting people back on their feet during tough times, has become "a hammock which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency," as House Republican Paul Ryan put it in his response to the State of the Union last year.

But Boteach said that poverty is not an uncommon experience for many Americans, and neither is using the safety net to rise above it. Between 2004 and 2008, one in three Americans were in poverty for at least two months. And this was before the Great Recession.

This is not some stagnant group of people that are just laying there on a hammock watching Oprah all day. They're people trying to work, trying to make it, and being paid low wages and oftentimes can't find a job in this economy. So that analogy is actually quite offensive to people who are really trying to make it.

Cutting taxes, cutting new holes

Mitt Romney says that he'd look at fixing the safety net only if the safety net needed fixing. It's not a priority: what are priorities are lower taxes and repealing "Obamacare."

But Boteach argues that repealing "Obamacare" would weaken an area of the safety net that's less expensive to shore up than the tax cuts sought by Romney. Not being concerned about the very poor could undermine the very rationale Romney gives for focusing his attention elsewhere.

His tax cuts to the one percent, over $2 trillion over ten years, would be more than his cuts to 72 million Americans' health care. We're looking at a massive transfer from people getting health care, by repealing the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansions, and channeling that money upward towards the one percent in the form of tax cuts.