How poor do you have to be to qualify for the safety net in 2012?

Mitt Romney says he’s not worried about the poorest people in America, because they have a safety net. President Obama didn’t even mention poverty in his 2012 State of the Union Address. Well, politicians and candidates may not be thinking about poverty, but a lot of real people are out there living in it—and their numbers are growing. So, how far down on the economic food chain does an individual or a family need to be in order to be considered “poor enough” for safety-net programs?   On Jan. 26, 2012, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] published its annual poverty guidelines.

HHS extrapolates its poverty guidelines from figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. The most recent Census numbers offer a lot of discouraging news:

-Real median household income in the United States in 2010 was $49,445, a 2.3 percent decline from the 2009 median.

-Using the Census’ “threshold” measurement, the nation’s official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 ─ the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate. There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 ─ the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

HHS’ 2012 poverty guidelines reflect that negative picture. The guidelines—whose purpose is to set the parameters for eligibility for needs-based programs—are, obviously, critical numbers for many individuals and families. A wide variety of federal and state agencies use these guidelines [and multiples of them, such as 125%, 150%, etc.] to determine who qualifies for assistance. Examples are Head Start, the Children’s Health Insurance Program [CHIPS], the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] and dozens of others.

In addition, some state and local governments use the federal poverty guidelines in some of their own programs and activities.  Examples include financial guidelines for child support enforcement and determination of legal indigence for court purposes.  Some private companies (such as utilities, telephone companies, and pharmaceutical companies) and some charitable agencies also use the guidelines in setting eligibility for their services to low-income people.

Here are the 2012 guidelines, and the same chart for 2011, for comparison. These are the real-life numbers for millions of Americans. I’d like to see Mitt Romney and all of the others who enjoy waging war on poor people look a safety-net-qualified American in the eye and say that there’s nothing to worry about. As for the rest of us, let’s compare these numbers with our own situations and try to imagine how well we and our own families might be doing at, say 150% of the HHS poverty guideline for 2012.