Everyone knows what Mitt Romney said about poor people. The half of Americans with the smallest incomes are sponging on the rest of us, “dependent upon government”. They “believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” He has given up on them, because “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Romney said it in May and hasn’t made any correction since then, except to wish he had said it better.
There was no slip-up here. Mitt was expressing conservative dogma about the 47%, which you can listen to on any conservative radio show, read on any conservative blog, and hear from any conservative politician when they think they’re not in front of a camera.
Conservatives do offer poor people one way out: get a job. They promise that lowering the taxes of rich Americans, reducing regulations on industry, and shrinking the number of government jobs will create private sector jobs galore, jobs for everyone.
My brother-in-law David Booth, a singer-songwriter-professor in Minnesota, said something very different about poverty. He wrote me that Romney’s frequent use of Staples as the best example of how he created jobs through his leadership of Bain Capital “qualifies as irony.”
Staples was Bain’s first success. Bain invested about $2 million in 1986. Staples went from one store to become an office supplies giant. Bain got back $13 million a few years later and Romney sat on Staples’ board of directors for 15 years. His campaign says that Staples contributed about two-thirds of the new jobs that Romney claims to have created at Bain.
What kind of jobs did Romney create? According to glassdoor.com, which publishes job data for thousands of companies, salaries for entry positions at Staples are under $9.00 per hour. A 40-hour week and a 50-week year means a yearly income less than $18,000. Even with an income up to $26,400, a couple with two children would pay no federal income taxes.
So Romney thinks that the people who got the jobs he says he created are those irresponsible parasites who are hopelessly dependent on government. That is ironic.
Here is more recent evidence about the views of the two candidates on poverty. The Circle of Protection, leaders of Christian organizations and churches across the religious spectrum, who are concerned about the moral issue of poverty, asked the two candidates in July to make short video statements about how “to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people.” These videos, released in September, avoid specifics, but do define the parties’ differences.
Obama emphasized the value of government assistance to the poor and his unwillingness to reduce it. “My faith teaches me that poverty is a moral issue. The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper. And I believe that as a public servant, I must do my part to answer that call. . . . That’s why I’ve fought to keep this a country where everyone who works hard has a basic sense of dignity and a chance to get ahead. . . . I believe that even as we work hard to get ahead, we also have the obligation to reach back and help others to get ahead, too. . . . We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. We certainly cannot ask the poor, the sick, or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more. . . That’s not just bad economics. It’s morally wrong. . . . We are all in this together, as one people, one American family, one nation under God.”
Romney emphasized both the jobs he would create over four years and the need to cut the domestic budget now. “Coming to the aid of those in need is a critical mission. . . . My vision for recovery starts with jobs, a lot of jobs. . . . But at this point budget cuts are also going to be necessary. . . . Here you have my word: I’ll proceed carefully. . . . entitlement programs now account for more than half of federal spending.”
Although Romney used this opportunity to note that a record number of Americans are on food stamps, an implicit criticism of Obama’s economic leadership, the Republican Party wishes to cut the food stamp program, because it encourages the dependence that conservatives deplore. Republicans in the House have passed legislation, without any Democratic support, that reduces eligibility for food stamps. This is what Romney means when he said to the Circle of Protection that he would cut the federal budget carefully, but cut it nevertheless.
The same party divide showed up when Congress considered extending compensation for the long-term unemployed. In 2009, virtually all Democrats voted for and virtually all Republicans voted against extending these payments through 2010.
The parties differ on poverty policies because they differ in their views of the poor. Republicans suspect the poor of dependency and irresponsibility, and seek to reduce the government programs that aid them. Democrats wish to protect and extend those programs. No matter who wins in November, it will be a long time before enough new jobs are created to lift millions out of poverty. Until then, the winner’s vision of what the poor deserve will determine how much the poor eat.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 4, 2012