Romney's lack of concern for poor people
Feb 1, 2012

Romney's lack of concern for poor people

Campaign coverage often likes to jump from gaffe to gaffe as if this (and poll data) is the only relevant thing to talk about in a Presidential race. Perhaps it is just a function of the overly polished, trite vacuousness of the rest of their tightly controlled campaigns that the gaffes give us a rare glimpse of insight into the candidates as they actually are. Mostly, however, I think this is a function of intellectual laziness on the part of those who cover,and follow, campaigns but don't care to engage in real policy analysis or discussion. At the risk of being overtly hypocritical, here is Romney's latest gaffe:
I’m not concerned with 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.”
The bolded part is getting the most attention. It seems to underline the general narrative of a plutocratic and arrogant Romney who does not have empathy for the less fortunate. It follows a line of similarly themed gaffes from the $10k bet to the "I like to fire people" to gleefully bragging about making Ted Kennedy take out a mortgage on his house, that reinforce this narrative. Many have noted the hypocrisy of justifying his ambivalence towards the very poor based on the social safety net when he, and many of his Republican compadres, are aiming to limit and cut that very safety net.

However, the bigger issue from this gaffe to me was his notion of just who the very poor actually are. Once one subtracts one or two percent for the very rich, and the 95% he thinks are in the middle, the "very poor" in America apparently only amounts to a couple percent of people. According to the US census, 15.1% of people in 2010 were below the already very low poverty line, over 25% for blacks and Hispanics. Apparently these people don't all qualify as the very poor that Romney isn't concerned with, since most of them fit in his 95% "heart of America".

The main misunderstanding when trying to give some false equivalence between the very rich and the very poor, is that marginal increase in wealth for higher percentiles among the rich is enormous, while it is very flat among the poorest. That is, the difference from going from the 98th to the 99th or 99.9th percentile represents a truly staggering difference in wealth. But the difference between the bottom five percent and the next five percent would be trivial were their situations all not so dire. We have this very gradual increase in wealth among the poorest, but this staggering increase in wealth among the richest.

To make some cutoff among the bottom couple percent of people such that on one side they get apathetically ignored as moochers from the safety nets while on the other side they are among the 95% heart of America is ludicrous. There simply is not a meaningful qualitative difference among the poor the way there is among the rich when, say, Occupy members talk of the wealth controlled by the top 0.1%. Not to mention, of course, that those who use the social safety nets are far in excess of a couple percent or even the 15% below the official poverty line. In fact, 56% of Americans will dip below the poverty line at some point in their lifetime so the idea that the safety nets are for this inconsequential few just doesn't hold weight. But if one is from the party that wants to cut the social safety nets, it sure would be nice to paint it as just the rare few who actually use this expensive thing.

Appealing to the "middle", the "middle class", or the "working class" is not uncommon among politicians. Most from all sides do it more tactfully than Romney did, but it is not exactly rare. The idea that this middle actually extends to include just about everybody is also not rare. I have written before about how most people consider themselves to be middle class even when it seems to eliminate any meaning from the word to do so. There is also a theme on the right called producerism (which vilifies the very top and bottom at leaches on society while the producer class in the middle is the ones that create wealth) and Romney is tapping into this. As a member of that top 0.1%, it is more than a bit ironic for Romney to be coming anywhere close to such rhetoric.
"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."
As long as 80% of people - and asymmetrically those most likely to vote - consider themselves "middle-income", the line works. But is it true? Does he actually focus on middle-income Americans? Certainly his rhetoric does. But it is hard to imagine his policies ever will give the campaign contributions exclusively from Wall Street:

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