Nevada Safety Net Has Holes For Mitt Romney To Fix

Nevada Safety Net Has Holes For Mitt Romney To Fix

Republican presidential candidate candidate Mitt Romney said Wednesday that he is "not concerned about the very poor" because government programs already help them.

"We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it," Romney said. "We have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor."

The safety net might need some repair, particularly in the very state where the former Massachusetts governor is hoping to maintain momentum after a decisive victory in Tuesday's Republican primary election in Florida. Nevada, which picks its candidate in caucuses on Saturday, has the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates of any state, and some of its safety net programs catch poor people at a lower rate than they do elsewhere.

Nationwide, Medicaid covers only a quarter of non-elderly adults with annual incomes below 139 percent of the poverty line, the threshold for Medicaid eligibility. (The poverty line is an annual income of $22,314 for a family of four.) In Nevada, Medicaid covers just 12 percent of non-elderly adults in that income range, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy think tank. More than half of those go uninsured, compared with 44 percent, or 21.5 million people, for the broader U.S.

The food stamp participation rate for eligible people was 72 percent nationwide in 2009, according to a December 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. Nevada was among 12 states with rates significantly lower than the national average, with 61 percent of eligible people receiving food assistance.

And many Nevadans afflicted by the signature scourge of the Great Recession -- long-term unemployment -- are left hanging when their unemployment insurance runs out after 99 weeks. Nearly 2 million people have been out of work that long nationwide.

Just 27 percent of Nevadans who ran out of jobless benefits landed in another part of the state's safety net over a yearlong period, according to a November 2011 report by the Nevada Division of Welfare and Supportive Services. Of 1,643 people who "exhausted" their unemployment from January 2010 to February 2011, just 442 landed in DWSS caseloads, with 436 signing up for food stamps. Just 88 enrolled in Medicaid, and 20 signed up for welfare. What happened to the rest?

The Nevada survey does not say how many found jobs, but an October 2011 analysis of state wage records by the Connecticut Labor Department's Office of Research paints a depressing picture for jobless exhaustees in that state: Only 25 to 35 percent found new jobs, and most earned significantly less than they did before their layoffs. A July 2011 survey by the Washington State Employment Security Department yielded similar results, with just 25 percent of exhaustees in new jobs, and most of those jobs paying less. In each state, older workers faced darker prospects.

The 2011 Nevada report also doesn't say how many might have landed on Social Security disability or retirement rolls. An in-progress study by Obama administration economists, though, has found that disability applications for workers older than 50 increased as they neared the end of their unemployment insurance.

Las Vegas resident Bruce Rotstein ran out of unemployment insurance in the fall of 2010 and has been "existing," as he puts it, thanks to $1,500 he and his wife started receiving in early Social Security retirement benefits. Rotstein said they downsized by moving into a house with their daughter and her husband and child.

"You listen to what's going on across the country, the world, and here I am, 65 and I can't support my family," Rotstein said.

When he applied for food stamps, he said he was denied because the doubled-up household had too much income. He said he and his wife couldn't qualify for Medicaid because of their combined Social Security income. They don't qualify for welfare because their daughter is grown.

Rotstein said he's had no luck finding work except for a part-time stint as a janitor that lasted only a few weeks. One obstacle, he's afraid, might be his rotten front teeth. He said that even when he was working, he didn't have dental coverage. Medicare, the insurance program for people older than 65, offers very limited dental coverage. "I have no smile," he said.

While Romney said he'd want to patch up the safety net, he's actually supported policies that liberal policy advocates say would dismantle programs for poor people, including Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps.

"I just don't understand how these people in government can stand out in front of everybody," Rotstein said. "Like Romney said, 'I don't worry about poor people' -- I think there's a revolt coming."

Arthur Delaney is the author of "A People's History of the Great Recession," HuffPost's first e-book.

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