Election 2012: What about the poor?

November 5, 2012: 3:48 PM ET
food stamps card
President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have different ideas for helping the poor.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

One wants to strengthen the nation's existing safety net. The other wants to overhaul it.

President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have vastly different views on how to help the 46.2 million Americans in poverty and the more than 30 million people who are near poor. The president leans toward expanding the programs that exist, while the Republicans say they will set up a system that fosters economic opportunity instead of government dependency.

The ranks of the poor and the government programs that assist them swelled during the Obama administration, largely because of the Great Recession. The number of people in poverty jumped 16% between 2008 and 2011, while the Medicaid rolls jumped 23.5% over that time. Food stamp enrollment soared 46% during his term.

Just who is elected president matters a great deal for the poor. In the weeks following Election Day, the president and lawmakers will have to deal with large, across-the-board cuts in domestic spending scheduled to take effect in January. While certain programs for the poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid, would be protected, other initiatives, including Head Start and housing assistance, could be slashed.

Lawmakers, however, will likely try to hammer out a deal that will avoid the automatic cuts, but could still curtail federal spending. If this happens, the extent of cuts to anti-poverty programs could depend on which party is in the White House, said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Obama's track record includes increased federal spending to bolster the poor, particularly in the 2009 Recovery Act. Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, are calling for reduced federal spending on poverty programs.

"The administration is willing to spend more money than the Republicans," Haskins said.

Here's how the two sides are addressing poverty:

Obama: The president points to his record of helping the poor weather the economic downturn. His $787 billion stimulus program included several expansions to existing anti-poverty programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and the Child Tax Credit.

These provisions, along with expanded unemployment benefits and the Making Work Pay tax credit, kept 6.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010 and lessened poverty for 32 million more, according to a post on Obama's campaign website, citing data compiled by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Related: America's near poor

Also, his Affordable Care Act increases Medicaid coverage to all adults with incomes up to 133% of the poverty line, which could add nearly 16 million more people to the rolls by 2019 than otherwise would have been eligible. The federal government would pay 100% of the cost of the expanded coverage initially, eventually phasing down to 90%. A Supreme Court ruling allowed states to decide whether to opt into the expansion.

Obama also says he expanded the Head Start initiative so it would reach an additional 64,000 children. And he doubled funding for Pell Grants for low-income college students and raised the maximum award.

Where unemployment doesn't hurt Obama

The president has been repeatedly attacked by conservatives for hiking government spending on the poor, with onetime GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich labeling him "the food stamp president."

Romney: Republicans, on the other hand, say that throwing money at the safety net fosters government dependency. Instead, Romney and Ryan believe that economic growth fosters upward mobility.

"...You should have the opportunity in America to rise, to escape from poverty, and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve," Ryan said in a recent speech in Ohio.

One of the key components of the Romney-Ryan plan is turning Medicaid and food stamps into block grants that the states would administer. This would limit the federal government's liability while giving states more freedom to tailor the program to their residents' needs. Romney also believes Medicaid spending should be capped and increased each year by inflation plus 1%.

Turning Medicaid, as well as worker retraining programs, into block grants could save more than $100 billion, according to Romney. His plan to cap total federal spending at 20% of gross domestic product would also cut funding for safety net programs.

Critics, however, say millions will see their lifelines disappear under Romney's budget proposal. And if Medicaid is turned into a block grant as outlined in the Ryan budget, 34% of its funding would be slashed by 2022, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Food stamps, meanwhile, would be cut by more than 17%.

Romney has run into trouble on the campaign trail when discussing the poor. In September, a videotape showed the candidate making derisive remarks about the 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes and feel entitled to health care, food and housing. He said he can never convince them to take personal responsibility.

And in February, Romney told CNN that he's "not concerned about the very poor" because they have a "very ample safety net." He did say that if the safety net needs repairs, he'll fix it.

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