Now let’s be clear – we all knew Mitt Romney did not give a flying fuck about the poor. Other than the occasional service provider, he’s never met any poor people, first of all. Moreover, it is a fact that no presidential candidate, Democratic or Republican for the last 30 years has cared about the very poor. Add in the fact that Mitt demonstrably cares only about his hair, campaign donors (not a lot of them among the very poor) and getting elected, and this isn’t exactly news.
GOP front-runner Mitt Romney said this morning that he’s not concerned about the plight of the country’s very poor because there are social safety nets that take care of them.
“I’m in this race because I care about Americans,” Romney told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien this morning after his resounding victory in Florida on Tuesday. “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. 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 very heart of the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.”
Ultimately, Mitt is pretty safe in saying this, because he’s playing on a whole host of American presumptions about poor people that are generally shared – even by many poor people. First of all, that the poor constitute only a tiny percentage of people, while 95% of us are “middle class.” In America, everyone is middle class – it is one of our cultural precepts. There is lower middle class, which for the most part could be more accurately described as “poor’ or “poorish” and upper middle class (better known as “richish” or actually rich), but very few people who will willingly call themselves rich or poor. This is, of course, factually ridiculous, but it is part of our national mythos.
The second assumption is that the very poor people are doing pretty well. You can see this on evidence any time any news story about social welfare appears, whereupon one is deluged with commenters about people on food stamps driving Jaguars and how unfair it is that some people get to live with these awesome safety nets while others have to work for a living. This is because one of America’s best tricks is setting the poorish against the poor, and setting up the very poor as the enemy. What we like to believe is that poor people are those whose moral failings are the primary reason for their being in poverty. In fact, their moral failings (which exist) tend to be mostly the same moral failings of ordinary Americans, only exacerbated by a lack of support and many things that other people take for granted.
Mitt seems to believe what most Americans believe, which is that those on social welfare programs are doing just awesome, while the real victims are middle class Americans. This is a pretty funny idea, but it isn’t just Mitt’s. The notion that lower and middle class Americans are struggling more than the truly poor is not an uncommon one by people who look on social welfare programs with hostility. If there’s anything really different about his assumptions it is the very funny classing of the desperately poor with the extremely rich as having a lot in common.
Let’s take a look at some of Mitt’e assumption, though. First, how many people are actually poor in the US? The number is just around 40 millon at this point, not the 2-5 percent at the top and bottom that Mitt seems to think, but around 15% of the US population (relative poverty is greater, but I’m using the US census figures).
More than half of all Americans will spend at least a year in poverty during their adult life times. Almost a quarter of those people that Mitt just said he didn’t give a crap about are children. Another ten percent are senior citizens. Let us note for the record that Mitt just disavowed interest in just under 10 million children and four million elders. Just mentioning it, since kids and senior citizens get a lot of attention during an election year. But they aren’t the right kind of kids or seniors.
How well are safety nets doing for these folks? Well, we know that despite those safety nets, the ones that the Republicans do their best to hammer Barack Obama with (despite the fact that the dramatic rise in food stamp usage began under George W. Bush), 11 percent of American households were food insecure in the course of a year. This means that even though the largest percentage of people in history are on food support programs, we still have a significant number of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from a lot of the time. Again, it would be worth noting that a lot of those people are kids.
What about other measures? Well, we know that infant mortality rates in poor areas are a scandal. We know that in a number of poor counties around the America lifespans are actually declining, and that the poor endure more stress, having higher rates of suicide, depression, homicide and disability due to untreated medical conditions – yup. those poor people are doin’ just awesome – practically as good as their counterparts like Mitt, the incredibly rich.
What’s disturbing about this is that it reinforces an absolutely insane set of beliefs that people really do hold – that an upper-middle class person struggling to manage private school tuition is actually really hurting, while the desperately poor are protected by social welfare programs. Unfortunately, this belief isn’t limited to the American right – it is reinforced by the language of the Occupy movement, which speaks of the “99%” as though they are uniformly oppressed by the ultra-rich 1%. This isn’t the intent of Occupy, of course, which is vastly more concerned about poverty than Mitt is, but the rhetoric being used builds on the assumption that we’re all basically part of one group, the (vast) middle class except for a few people, and that there is a great deal of commonality between the moderately rich and the very poor.
That simply isn’t the case. While the 1% have more money than the 2 and 3%, all of them are doing just fine – what the rhetoric does is make sure that the people you are opposing are never you, always someone else. By building on language of classlessness that America loves so much, we elide differences just as much on the left as the right. That’s not to say that under the sound bites the Occupy Movement hasn’t a had a lot of good things to say about class and poverty – but that the sound bites are the things that other people hear best and remember longest.
Income disparity and poverty have become part of the national discourse in a way that owes enormously to both the Occupy Movement and the traditional poor-bashing that goes with an election year. That’s a positive thing – but the language that we use to talk about poverty, class and equity falls short of what is needed and that’s a problem on all sides.
It is easy to pillory sleazy, ignorant Mitt Romney for his inaccuracy and inequity – actually what really should be news about this is the unpublicized part of this. What’s actually shocking is Mitt’s statement that if safety nets are inadequate he’ll fix them, a statement almost unheard of by a Republican. What he doesn’t know about poverty and class aren’t really news, unfortunately, because they represent what America doesn’t know and doesn’t want to talk about.
In a society where energy and resource decline has clear economic results – more poverty, more volatilty, more uncertainty and a winding down of the growth economy, those people that Mitt doesn’t care about will get greater in number – indeed, have been growing greater in number. As long as we use language and misconception to conceal them, however, they can grow and grow and still be marginalized until the day that they decline to be marginalized any more, and everyone looks up, startled, that the very poor are so many and so angry and so familiar to us.