Sunday, February 05, 2012

i'm not concerned about the very poor



truthdig | I wish Mitt Romney’s cavalier dismissal of poverty in America could be chalked up as just another gaffe, but it’s much worse than that. The Republican front-runner seems dangerously clueless about the nation he seeks to lead.

When I first heard the now-famous quote—“I’m not concerned about the very poor”—I thought it might be fodder for a snarky column about the wee little Mr. Monopoly who lives inside Romney’s head and blurts out things like “Corporations are people, my friend,” or “I like being able to fire people.” But I realized that being “very poor” is no laughing matter to millions of Americans.

Putting Romney’s words in their full context makes them worse. Here is what he said on CNN:

“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 America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

For my part, I’m concerned about what sounds like shocking ignorance about the extent of poverty in this country and an utter lack of urgency about finding solutions.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in September, the poverty rate began rising sharply in 2007 as the recession took hold. By 2010, the report says, 15.1 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line—46.2 million people who apparently do not merit Romney’s attention.

A substantial plurality of these poor people—about 20 million—are non-Hispanic whites. Roughly 13 million are Hispanic and nearly 11 million are African-American. These figures show that minorities are overrepresented among the poor, but also that poverty is by no means some kind of “minority problem.” It’s an American problem.

And even these numbers are somewhat misleading, since the official poverty threshold is set at a level that many researchers consider unrealistically low. Imagine supporting a family of four on $22,314 a year—food, shelter, clothing, transportation—and being told you’re not poor.

A better measure, in my view, is the number of American families getting by on incomes that equal the poverty level plus an additional 25 percent. By this standard, fully one-fifth of the nation is poor.