Feb 272012
Authors: Los Angeles Times Alana Semuels

LOS ANGELES _ Republican presidential candidates recently have found themselves battling over who cares most for the poor. But their demonstrations of empathy sometimes collide with their plans to cut back the programs on which many of the poor depend.

After he appeared to dismiss the very poor, Mitt Romney was forced to backpedal from his politically perilous remarks. But he and other candidates stand by bedrock conservative principles of cutting entitlement programs and government spending.

“We have to be concerned about those who are at the very margins of society,” Rick Santorum told the Detroit Economic Club. “There’s another candidate in this race who suggested he didn’t care about the very poor, who just cares about the 95 percent. How about a candidate that cares about 100 percent?”

Yet just minutes earlier, Santorum had pledged to cut entitlement programs, which he said would “completely consume all revenues” if unchecked.

The safety net for the poor has expanded in recent years, by some measures. Since traditional welfare was phased out in the mid-1990s, programs such as the earned income tax credit, cash assistance and food stamps have replaced it as resources for families down on their luck.

The government spent $7,374 per person on benefits in 2010, up 53 percent from 2000 when adjusted for inflation, according to data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Talk about cutting the safety net is especially fraught in states like Michigan, where the Republican primary will be held Tuesday. It had the highest unemployment rate in the nation in 2009 and is still recovering from the recession that saw the state lose more than half a million jobs.

Though many of the state’s poor benefit from government assistance, Michigan is dramatically cutting back state-funded benefits as it tries to work its way back to financial health. Recently, the state has cut the number of weeks of unemployment benefits to 20 from 26, dramatically limited its state-run earned income tax credit, put a 48-month lifetime limit on cash assistance programs and implemented an asset test that people must pass before receiving food stamps. It applied a means test for food stamps even as 38 other states had removed theirs.

“There’s a lot of states that have made significant cuts to their basic safety net programs, but Michigan does stand out,” said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The nonprofit Michigan League for Human Services estimates that the cuts in the earned income tax credit would reduce the amount families get from the state to $140 from $430. It says that 15,000 families _ including 30,000 children _ lost their cash assistance between September and January.

These cuts echo plans proposed by many of the GOP candidates. Romney would allow the expansion of the earned income tax credit to expire, essentially reducing the amount available to families, something Michigan just did. Santorum wants to put time and work limits on people receiving government benefits, which Michigan just did. Gingrich proposes a flat tax rate for corporations; Michigan eliminated the state’s major business tax and replaced it with a 6 percent corporate income tax _ costing the state $1 billion and forcing some of the safety net cuts, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Gingrich, Romney and Santorum also say they would change means-tested federal programs such as Medicaid into block grant programs run by the states. Romney, speaking at an economic round table in Monroe, said once he eliminated what he considers unsustainable federal spending, such as subsidies for Amtrak and the National Endowment for the Arts, he would examine the remaining federal programs.

“I’m going to say, ‘Is this program better handled at the state or local level than the federal level?’ “ he said, adding that Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers are among the programs he would consider sending to the states. Federal funding would be handed out as block grants and state leaders would decide how it would best be spent.

That makes people like Gilda Z. Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Human Services, more than a little nervous. The theory behind block grants is that they give states flexibility in administering the funds in ways that best suit local conditions.

“My concern is that sometimes, in the political climate in our state, political decisions are being driven by people who base these decisions on an ideology that don’t necessarily mesh with some of the needs that we may have in the state,” she said.

When federal welfare reform was passed, it moved money in block grants to the states. That model alone might make politicians hesitate about using block grant programs to help the very poor, said Leachman, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Though caseloads rose during the recession, the amount of money available to states didn’t increase.

Several other states have recently trimmed programs for the poor. Wisconsin and New Jersey cut the percentage they contribute to the earned income tax credit. Washington froze enrollment for a state-run health care plan. South Carolina wants to impose a drug test on people receiving unemployment benefits.

The candidates, meantime, will have to face voters such as John Collum, 36. Collum has two sons, a disabled wife, and owes tens of thousands of dollars in rent and other expenses. Collum’s family receives Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance as he looks, so far unsuccessfully, for work in Wayne, Mich.

“I don’t think it’s a terrible idea” to cut government benefits, said Collum, who has not yet decided whether he will vote on Feb. 28. “The problem is, it’s just too early to do it.”

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