Romney: "I'm not concerned about the very poor"

@CNNMoney February 1, 2012: 5:26 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Mitt Romney says he isn't worried about those living in poverty since they have government assistance programs to fall back on. Instead, he wants to focus on helping the middle class.

But not everyone is so sure that the nation's lifelines are truly protecting those who need it.

Saying the nation had a "very ample safety net," Romney cited Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers as examples of government programs that protect the poor.

"I'm not concerned about the very poor," the Republican presidential candidate said on CNN Wednesday morning. "There's a safety net there, and if it needs repair I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the heart of America, the 95% of Americans who are right now struggling."

The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars to feed, shelter and care for those in poverty, which hit a record 46.2 million people in 2010. Demand has skyrocketed as a result of the Great Recession.

A record number of people are now receiving government assistance. Roughly 1 in 6 Americans depend on public programs, with the largest two being Medicaid and food stamps.

Spending on all the government's income-based programs, such as food stamps, has increased by one-third to $900 billion under President Obama, according to the Heritage Institute.

Federal outlays on Medicaid was an estimated $275 billion in fiscal 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office. On average, some 56.3 million people received Medicaid benefits each month that year, though millions more who qualify don't sign up.

Romney, one of the richest candidates to run for president, supports turning Medicaid into a block grant and letting states control the funds. But advocates for low-income Americans worry that could result in lower federal support for the program and, ultimately, cuts in benefits and eligibility.

As for food stamps, the federal government spent more than $75 billion in fiscal 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly 45 million people got help buying food, receiving an average monthly benefit of $134.

Still, about one-quarter of those eligible for food stamps don't receive them, experts say. And for many, the monthly check is not enough to cover all their nutrition needs.

Housing vouchers cost the government another $18.3 billion in fiscal 2012. This program, which shelters 2.1 million households, is the largest federal rental aid initiative. Overall, the government puts a roof over the heads of 5 million Americans through various rental assistance efforts at a cost of $34 billion.

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But unlike food stamps and Medicaid, housing assistance is not an entitlement. The amount is limited by the funding granted by Congress.

Only one-quarter of eligible families receive federal housing aid, according to Doug Rice, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning group.

So while lifelines do exist for the poor, more can be done to assist the needy, experts said.

"It is a common misconception that we don't have to worry about the very poor because they are covered by existing programs," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, senior policy analyst at CLASP, which advocates for low-income Americans. "In fact, our safety net has many holes." To top of page

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