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

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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.

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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."

As the CBPP noted in an analysis last week, beyond those specific proposals, Romney's basic budget framework also necessitates further reductions in projected spending on federal safety net programs. Romney has said he wants to limit federal spending to 20 percent of the economy, while guaranteeing that defense spending claims at least one-fifth of that. That would leave 16 percent for all non-defense programs including entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.

To meet that goal, the CBPP calculated that Romney would be required to cut all domestic programs by about $500 billion by 2016, a figure the former Massachusetts governor himself has used. In percentage terms, to meet his goal Romney would have to cut all domestic programs by 17 percent by 2016 and 23.5 percent by 2021; if Social Security is exempted, as is likely, the required cuts rise to 24.2 percent by 2016 and 34.5 percent by 2021. If Medicare is exempted (like Ryan, Romney would convert Medicaid into a voucher-like premium support system but not impose the change for anyone older than 55), then the required cuts in other programs increase to 34 percent by 2016 and 50 percent by 2021. And even those cuts assume that Romney's other promise to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget doesn't go into effect by then; with a balanced budget requirement, the required cuts rise even higher.

In all, the Romney agenda would cut social safety net programs "dramatically in a way that has been beyond the bounds of political debate even among Republicans up until now," CPBB President Bob Greenstein said in an interview. "Paul Ryan broke new ground in how deep his cuts were in low income programs, and now the inexorable consequences of the math of Romney's proposals means you would have to cut them significantly deeper than Ryan does."

One Romney adviser maintained the CBPP calculations overstated the breadth of the spending cuts his plan would require because it did not take into account the specific reductions he has proposed, such as the repeal of the health care law. But the Romney camp did not provide alternative figures about the reductions that would be required to meet his goals. (Also, to achieve savings on health care, Romney would need to follow the Ryan budget by continuing Obama's reductions in Medicare spending, which the former governor has sharply criticized.) More broadly, the Romney adviser argued that it was misguided to equate federal spending with the quality of the safety net.

"Governor Romney has not proposed a significant reduction in federal spending on safety net programs; he has proposed a slowing of their rate of growth," the adviser said. "While it is standard liberal dogma that a centralized federal program with an unlimited budget is the best way to construct a social safety net, common sense and hard-won experience from efforts like welfare reform suggest otherwise. Governor Romney believes that states are far better equipped than the federal government to care for their poor and effectively administer programs to assist them. By block granting federal funds, states will have far greater flexibility and incentives to craft efficient and effective programs that help their residents."

In a general election, Romney would argue that he is rethinking the social safety net. But his agenda would significantly, potentially vastly, reduce federal contributions to safety net programs from the level anticipated under current law; unless states find radical efficiency improvements that have eluded them before, that inexorably would lead to narrowed eligibility and reduced benefits. While Romney this week talked about filling in the safety net, his proposals so far would all have the effect of pruning it back, in some cases severely.

Image: Steve Nesius / Reuters

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

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

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