Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that the “very poor” don’t concern him comes at a time when the portion of Americans living in deep poverty is the highest in more than a generation while assistance varies widely and is often inadequate.
“Virtually any food bank in any city in America would tell you that they have not been able to keep up with the demand,” said Bill Shore, founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national charity that fights childhood hunger. “That means more rationing of food, not allowing families to take as much as they would have before and being open shorter hours.”
More than 20 million Americans live in a household with income of less than half the federal poverty rate, the level social scientists often use as a category for the very poor, according to census data for 2010. Last year that meant an annual income below $11,057 for a family of four.
The portion of the population in that category was the highest in at least 35 years and has almost doubled since 1975, from 3.7 percent then to 6.7 percent in 2010.
Romney told CNN on Feb. 1 that “I’m not concerned about the very poor” because they have many programs to help them. He later clarified his remarks, telling reporters on his campaign plane that low-income people have an “ample safety net,” including Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Facing a barrage of criticism from Democrats and one of his Republican competitors, Romney said yesterday on Las Vegas television station KSNV’s “Face to Face with Jon Ralston” that he “misspoke” in the CNN interview.
Without referencing Romney, President Barack Obama yesterday twice mentioned caring for the poor in remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. He cited “the Biblical call to care for the least of these -- for the poor, for those at the margins of society.”
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a rival for the Republican presidential nomination, responded with a message to followers of his Twitter account. “I really believe we should care about the very poor unlike Gov. Romney,” he wrote. “Poor needs trampoline so they can swing up”
Several providers of services for low-income families and analysts said Romney’s statement that the safety net protected families in deep poverty didn’t square with reality.
Holes in Net
“The social safety net has great big holes in it,” said Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA. “In real time on the ground, we’re seeing exponential increases of people coming to our door for basic needs: emergency financial assistance, food, housing.”
Eighty-eight percent of local Catholic Charities agencies had to turn away people or place them on wait lists for services, according to the organization’s most recent quarterly survey of local affiliates, covering July through September 2011.
Ramon Garcia, county judge of Hidalgo County, Texas, said Romney is “oblivious to what is going on down here.” Garcia is located in a metropolitan area near the southern tip of Texas where 15.8 percent of the population lives on less than half the federal poverty level.
“When you see how people are living and the increasing numbers of people who are being assisted by food banks and at our 11 health clinics, it is disappointing,” said Garcia, whose office is administrative rather than judicial. “By law we have to spend 8 percent of our budget on indigent health care, but that isn’t enough to meet all of the demand.”
Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said changes in federal assistance in the 1996 welfare overhaul law have left poor families more vulnerable in an extended recession with jobs hard to find.
“It’s a safety net that has been shifting and provides more support for working families than it did 20 years ago,” Sherman said. “But if you happen to not have a job, the safety net has weakened and is less likely to keep you out of the deepest forms of poverty.”
Even so, temporary assistance programs included in the 2009 stimulus package and later legislation Congress passed in 2010 have helped some families avoid falling into deep poverty, Sherman said.
About 2.4 million Americans were lifted above the $10,000 income threshold by benefits not fully captured in the census count because of those temporary expansions of assistance, Sherman said.
Those programs include a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit, extended unemployment benefits and a higher maximum payment, expanded eligibility for food stamps and a higher maximum food stamp benefit and the expired “Making Work Pay” tax credit, Sherman said.
More than 46 million Americans received food stamps in November, the most recent month for which figures are available, down from an all-time high of 46.268 million in September, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The number of recipients set records every month from December 2008 until June 2011.
Food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the only federal entitlement available to most legal residents based solely on need, said Sheila Zedlewski, a fellow at the Urban Institute.
“Food stamps isn’t going to pay your rent or for your gas,” Zedlewski said.
Since the welfare overhaul in 1996, cash assistance for families varies widely by state, she said.
“In California, there is still cash assistance for you,” she said. “In other states, it’s more likely to be emergency assistance. It is typically one to three months of a welfare payment, and you’re not to come back for a year after that.”
Thirty states pay no cash assistance to families who make more than 30 percent of the federal poverty level, she said.
Zedlewski said assistance for the poor may be reduced as state budgets contract and with the loss of billions of dollars of federal assistance for welfare and job programs that were included in the stimulus package.
Still, Ron Haskins, a former senior adviser on welfare to then-President George W. Bush, said a surge in federal spending on food stamps, unemployment insurance and Medicaid has largely provided for the poor.
“The safety net has functioned very well during the recession,” said Haskins, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There are people who fall through the cracks, but I don’t think that’s a huge problem.”
While the recession has exposed shortcomings in cash assistance, the emphasis on work-based assistance has mostly helped low-income families, including the working poor who are now eligible for unemployment insurance during periods of joblessness, Haskins said.
“The real problem is that the very poor don’t work enough and don’t marry enough,” Haskins said. “President Clinton and the Republicans did something about that in the 1990s.”
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