By David K. Shipler
Mitt Romney’s remark that the poor don’t need his concern because they have a safety net has triggered worry on the right and glee on the left that he’s emerging as an uncaring, unelectable patrician. But the more important issue is the myth that a safety net even exists—the widely accepted notion that the fragmented, underfunded programs to address poverty actually rescue falling families from destitution.
To give Romney his due, he said that “if” he found holes in the net, he’d “fix” them. Let’s take him up on that. Since he doesn’t already know about the gaping holes through which 46 million Americans have fallen into poverty, perhaps he’ll want to talk with a few such folks on the campaign trail. Then, all he’d have to do as president is summon up the billions it would take to do the job—a worthy investment, but not one that Republicans have ever been willing to make.
Look at housing, which often begins a chain reaction of devastating problems. The poor don’t typically have mortgages that they can’t pay, but they have rent that they can barely pay. Government eases the burden for many, but many more are lined up all over the country on long waiting lists for public housing and vouchers that pay part of their rent for privately owned apartments. With shortfalls in government funding, there is virtually no hope that they will get to the head of the line for years, if ever, in most places. And while they wait without subsidies, they have to fork over large chunks of their incomes for rent, sometimes as much as 50 to 70 percent.
Writing the rent check is not optional. Neither is the car payment if you need to drive to work, as most do. You don’t have a choice about paying the electricity and phone bills. The most flexible part of the tight budget, the expenditure that can be squeezed, is for food. So poor families in the private rental market cut back on nutrition, sometimes just when their young children need it the most, during that critical period when brains are rapidly developing, in the first two or three years of life. Underweight children are more prevalent in low-income families without rent subsidies than in low-income families that are getting government housing benefits.
Food stamps—now in the form of a debit card—ease the hardship to an extent, but the benefits don’t last more than two or three weeks into the month, judging by what poor families say. “The food-stamp president,” in Newt Gingrich’s derisive caricature, has hardly solved the nutrition deficit, and this will have longterm consequences. Early malnutrition can leave a child with lifelong cognitive impairment, which translates into lower IQ and sometimes learning disabilities, poor school performance, and an increased tendency to drop out before graduating. In a ruthless global marketplace, an impaired workforce is not an advantage to an economy already struggling to keep up.
The 1996 welfare reforms, championed by Republicans, conceded by Democrats, and embraced by President Clinton, accomplished only one of three tasks. It moved people off welfare by setting time limits, but it failed to provide them with sufficient job training and the child care to enable their successful entry into the workforce. Many were stuck in low-wage jobs with no skills or pathways to advancement. Government officials touted the reform by counting the number of recipients who left the welfare rolls without examining where they ended up.
Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) have insured large numbers of the poor, but working families who stand just outside the eligibility requirements often remain uninsured; either their employers don’t offer insurance, or the premiums feel too high. Parents sometimes make bad bets, calculating that they can do without insurance if their children are covered by SCHIP. The new health law, which Romney denounces as “Obamacare,” would actually make some repairs to this part of the net by expanding Medicaid eligibility and subsidizing private insurance for those just above the income limits.
If Romney wants to make other repairs, once he learns about the safety net’s holes, he might draw bipartisan support for enhancing one of the most effective anti-poverty programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit. It comes as a payment by the IRS after a low-income earner files a tax return, and it can amount to more than just a refund of taxes withheld. It can effectively subsidize a wage (which means subsidizing business by allowing employers to pay less). Democrats like it because it provides direct cash assistance to needy families. Republicans like it because you don’t get it unless you work, obey the tax laws, and report earned income. Also, it doesn’t require its own government bureaucracy, since it is handled by the IRS. Eligibility for the program could be broadened, payments could be increased.
Therefore, political reporters covering the campaign could do a service by following up on the last half of Romney’s statement, after they get finished excoriating him for the first half. “I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there; if it needs repair, I’ll fix it,” he said. Then, asked by Soledad O’Brien of CNN to explain himself, he declared, “Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.”
Good journalism dictates that Romney should be asked to finish the sentence with specifics on the holes that he sees and the repairs he would make.
Listen to an interview on this subject on the Takeaway by clicking here.