Even Mitt Romney’s defenders admit that he chose his words poorly when, on Wednesday morning, he told CNN that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” But many of these defenders say the quote is innocuous once you read it in context and realize what Romney was really trying to say.
Well, I’ve read the quote in context and have a pretty good idea what Romney was trying to say. I would hardly describe it as innocuous.
The full exchange appears below this item. It’s long, so here I’m just going to quote the key passage:
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 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.”
To give Romney his due, he clearly wasn't saying that he was indifferent to the very poor. And I assume that, deep in his heart, he is not. Instead, Romney was saying that, as president, he wouldn’t make the very poor a top priority, because they are doing well enough, at least relative to the middle class.
But where on earth did Romney get that idea? The statistics tell a rather different story. Last year, for example, more than half of all children in poor households experienced a major hardship such as hunger or living in overcrowded living conditions, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And if statistics like that are too abstract for Romney, perhaps he should spend some time in a clinic for the uninsured or a soup kitchen. If he did, he'd discover that life for the very poor is still very hard. They struggle just to pay for food and heat, let alone rent. Most of these people get by – people almost always find a way to get by – but it’s not a life that Romney or anybody else would want for themselves or their loved ones.
Romney is correct that a safety net exists for these people: Food stamps, and housing vouchers, and public health insurance save countless Americans from even worse hardship and, in the best of cases, help lift them into the middle class, where they stay. But the programs are not generous enough, or expansive enough, to do the job adequately. In most states, for example, only mothers and children are eligible for basic health insurance under Medicaid. Housing vouchers and subsidized child care, frequently essential for mothers who want to work, typically have long waiting lists. The value and reach of cash assistance (welfare) has actually declined in relative terms.
And while Romney vowed “to repair” holes in the safety net, the policies he has proposed would have the very opposite effect. Romney has vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, effectively taking subsidized health insurance away from about 30 million people slated to get it starting in 2014. Romney has also pledged to reduce non-defense spending to 16 percent of gross domestic product. That target would, by Romney's own admission, require half a trillion dollar in cuts in 2016, above and beyond cuts already scheduled to take place next year.
There's a legitimate conservative argument in favor of reforming safety net programs and, in the process, realizing efficiencies that would make them less expensive. (John McCormack gives a version of it in the Weekly Standard.) And while I don't usually find that argument convincing, I believe well-intentioned people can disagree about its merits. Romney's plan, however, would require cuts that go well beyond any realistic expectation of savings from efficiency. As noted here and by the Center on Budget, there's simply no way to take that much money out of social services, in such a short time span, without reducing the assistance that people get and very much need.
But all of this misses the real problem with Romney’s statements: His suggestion that the safety net matters to only the a small class of people, constituting less than 10 percent of the population, who have the problems he associates with the "very poor." Hardship is actually a lot more widespread than that. According to the latest Census figures, 15 percent of Americans and 22 percent of children live below the poverty line. Keep in mind that the poverty line in 2011 was around $22,000 in annual income for a family of four. That doesn’t go very far.
Actually, even twice the poverty level, or about $44,000 a year in 2011, doesn’t go very far. And, according to the same census figures, nearly half of all American households have incomes below that level. These people depend on public programs, too, as do quite a few people making even more money but who are still a long ways from being rich. These people need government to provide college loans, public schools, and Medicare and Medicaid, just to name a few well-known services. (If you don’t think Medicaid helps the middle class, go visit a nursing home and ask how many residents have children in the middle class, who, if not for Medicaid, would be paying for their parents’ care out of their own pockets.)
Romney’s political strategy here seems clear to me: He’s trying to drive a wedge between the poor and the middle class, convincing the latter that they lose out to the former when Democrats are in charge. And the strategy may work. It's certainly helped Republicans before. But the big beneficiary of Romney's plan to reorder fiscal priorities is not the middle class. It's the very wealthy, who would get substantial tax benefits and who will usually be fine with weakened public services.
So maybe Romney's quote is misleading after all. It suggests that only the poor would be afterthoughts in a Romney presidency, when even many non-poor Americans would be forgotten, too.
And now, as promised, here is the full exchange with CNN's Soledad O'Brien:
Mitt Romney: “They want someone who they have confidence in. I believe I will be able to instill that confidence in the American people. By the way, I’m in this race, because I care about Americans. 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 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.”
Soledad O’Brien: “I know I said last question. You said I’m not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?”
Mitt Romney: “Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle income Americans. My campaign — you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich, that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on Social Security, people who can’t find work, folks that have kids getting ready to go to college. These are the people who have been most badly hurt during the Obama years.We have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.”
Bio: Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author.