"I'm not concerned about the very poor. "
This morning, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was chatting about which folks he cares about. Let's walk through it.
I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor.\n
Are the very poor not Americans? In 2010, thanks to the recession and other economic problems, 46 million Americans lived below the poverty line (about $22,000 for a family of four)—about 15 percent of Americans. One in three Americans are poor or near poor.
We have a safety net there, if it needs repair, I’ll fix it.\n
While the United States does have a social safety net—programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare—it it not ample compared to that of other developed countries, or even to the United States in the past. In fact, the broadest measure of social spending shows that since 1979, the United States has seen a 15 percent drop in payments to low-income Americans. Romney hasn't shown much interest in supporting temporary increases in the social safety net—he opposed the 2009 stimulus, which helped lower poverty by providing support to people hit hard by the recession. And, as Matt Yglesias points out, all of Romney's policy proposals point to a desire to shrink the safety net, not repair it.
I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine.\n
That part, at least, is true: In the last 20 years, the top 10 percent of American earners captured 85 percent of the increase in average income. Romney's $250 million fortune makes him one of the very rich, and he has benefited mightily from the kind of tax breaks that many economists say drive this inequality.
I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.\n
Actually, if you do the math for Romney, the 10 percent of Americans he doesn't care about because they're wealthy and the 15 percent he doesn't care about because they're impoverished leaves him caring about 75 percent. We'll forgive him for this error, at least, because it does capture the vast and increasing income disparity between the broad mass of Americans and the wealthiest citizens.
Yet Romney's attempt pander to the redoubtable American middle class shows how far behind the economic times he is—the middle class is clearly shrinking as the gap between rich and poor grows ever larger. To reverse that trend, we need more focus on the poorest among us, not less: Shoring up the middle class really means creating opportunities for more people to earn their way into it. That means better social policy matters to everyone—it's no coincidence that when America built a strong middle class, it came with a robust safety net.