Mitt Romney's Flip-Flop on the Social Safety Net

Defending his remarks about the poor, he said he wants to "fix" low-income assistance programs, but his proposals would actually cut them way back.


Among the many strange aspects of Mitt Romney's comments about the poor on CNN's Starting Point this week was his insistence that he intends to "fix" and "repair" the social safety net for low-income families. "If there are people that are falling through the cracks," Romney told reporters a few hours after his initial comments on CNN Wednesday morning, "I want to fix that."

In fact, at the heart of Romney's message throughout the primary has been his determination to retrench the safety net. His core argument against President Obama is that he is stifling the economy, and leading America dangerously away from its historic traditions by attempting to create what Romney calls "an entitlement society" modeled on Europe. "It is clear that he'll like to make us more like Europe, more like a European social-welfare state," Romney insisted Monday while campaigning before an elderly audience at The Villages in Florida. Romney delivers some variation on that charge in almost all of his stump speeches and major addresses.

Romney has fleshed out that sentiment with proposals that envision significant reductions in the projected spending trajectory for federal safety net programs. He has been most specific about Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that guarantees health care for the poor (including poor seniors in long-term care.) Romney, reflecting a long-time conservative goal, has said he would end the entitlement to Medicaid and convert it into a block grant program.

In a November speech to Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-flavored conservative economic group, Romney said he would limit future federal contributions to that Medicaid block grant to the annual increase in inflation plus one percent. That would mean federal spending on Medicaid would rise by about 3 percent annually, less than half the rate under current law. Romney says that would lower federal spending on Medicaid by $100 billion annually. Over time, the effect would drastically reduce the federal contribution to the program: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group with a liberal bent but a reputation for rigorous analysis, has calculated that a similar limit proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) would reduce federal spending on the program by 2030 to half the level envisioned under current law. Ron Haskins, a former long-time Republican Congressional aide who studies social-welfare policy at the Brookings Institution, says holding Medicaid spending to the level Romney has proposed "would be very, very difficult for the states; it is fair to say that would create a big crack in the safety net."

In another significant retrenchment, Romney, of course, has also pledged to repeal the expansion of Medicaid under Obama's 2010 health care reform law that would expand coverage to working-poor families with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level. That expansion is anticipated to provide coverage to 18 million currently uninsured adults.

At the Meet the Press/Facebook debate the Sunday before the New Hampshire primary, Romney signaled that he intends to extend the block grant approach to other means-tested federal entitlements. Early in the debate, Rick Santorum repeated his call for Washington to convert all of the major means-tested federal entitlements, such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, into block grants for which benefits would be time-limited and conditioned on work, as Congress did in the 1996 welfare reform that Santorum helped author. A few minutes later, Romney aligned himself with that idea.

"Return this -- as Rick indicated -- return to states a whole series of programs -- food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid," Romney said. "And then set how much goes to them."

That approach, Haskins said, could also open cracks in the safety net, especially at a time when state budgets are under such strain. "The block grant is a good idea; they are especially good for someone worried about the federal deficit," he said. "But the two problems are it shifts the burden to the states, and in some states, you can tell from actions in the past, the poor would get less than they do now. So it would open up more cracks."

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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