The "Holeist" of Holes in the Safety Net

02/03/2012 01:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2012

Poor Mitt Romney. The fact is that the candidate is a rich man (no matter what his tax bracket), but equally true is that his "not concerned about the very poor" assertions in a CNN interview have made him a political piñata on both the right and the left. That must hurt.

Romney explained to CNN's Soledad O'Brien that the reason he is not concerned about the very poor is that "there is a safety net." The inference is that the very existence of a safety net means the nation protects struggling families from the vagaries of recessions, the lack of jobs, the inadequacy of wages, and the high cost of housing -- to name a few arenas outside the control of most individuals.

Romney's belief in the safety net makes him sound more like the "everyman" who believes that all poor women with children receive welfare cash aid, everyone who needs food can readily get it (through the renamed food stamp program SNAP or the local soup kitchen), and that Medicaid takes care of all the health problems confronting the poor.

The safety net has lots of holes. For example, the nation's welfare program, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) has these rents in its fabric that need repair:

• Workers who are deeply poor too often are not allowed to get help through TANF cash aid. In more than half the states, work income that reaches just half the poverty level automatically disqualifies the family (2008). In other words, a family of four with annual earnings of $10,600 was ineligible for a penny of TANF cash aid in more than half the states in 2008.

• Fewer poor families with children receive cash aid. Between 1996 and 2011, cash aid dropped from 68 to 27 poor families for every 100 poor families with children.

• The cash aid families receive has dropped in value. The purchase power of cash aid has dropped at least 20 percent between 1996 and 2011.

• Cash aid for families never brings families above poverty. The cash aid grant is below half of the poverty line in every state in the nation.

There are other holes. Many workers in low wage jobs cannot get unemployment insurance because the rules create a chicken-egg situation in which to get aid you need to have earned more; Medicaid is automatically denied in 17 states when working parents earn wages that get them to half the poverty level; and, among those low-income families who are eligible to receive housing assistance, fewer than one in four families actually get it.

A key in fixing holes is being able to see and find them. Significantly, it turns out that Romney appreciates that the safety net has holes. As Politico reported, after his CNN interview, the candidate explained to a plane-load of media that "he is 'sure' there are holes in the safety net and that 'finding those places is one of the things that is the responsibility of government.'"

This new statement will draw the ire of some conservatives. The Wall Street Journal opinion writers responded to the CNN interview by chiding the candidate to speak a better "lingua franca" and to draw his framing from "a half-century of creative conservative thinking on antipoverty transfer programs... [urging] one note to strike is about growing dependency on government... " To some conservative thinkers there are not holes in the safety net; rather, the notion of government programs helping people is an idea that comes out of whole cloth.

The responsibility of government is at the heart of the 2012 presidential campaign. A challenge for the candidates should be to come up with a list of holes and which they think are the "holeist." Notably, 9 in 10 voters say that a presidential candidate's views on poverty are important in determining their vote, according to a recent poll from Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. So, the candidates should not just spar over which holes are the "holeist" but how they will proceed to fix them.