Poverty: so over it in 2012?

8 Feb

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was upset last week that his comment about “the very poor” during a CNN interview was taken out of context. He felt misrepresented when the media quoted him as saying, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”

Fine. Here’s what Romney said in full:

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, and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/way-florida-romney-signals-won-t-let-gingrich-185925558.html).

Somehow, I’m not feeling that much differently, context or no context. Notwithstanding how his comment in full seems to suggest that only the middle class qualify as “Americans,” here’s what I have trouble with:

A safety net for the poor is good enough. In other words, there’s very poor, and then there’s unacceptably very poor. As long as the very poor hover at their present socioeconomic status and don’t fall any lower, then we’re all good, right? Romney more or less implies that like the very rich, the very poor are “doing just fine” even if they’re just inches from that safety net. Given this low standard for socioeconomic intervention, Romney seems fairly unconcerned with inevitable holes in the “safety net,” through which already impoverished people may fall even deeper into the crevasse of poverty. Because, rest assured, he’ll get some duct tape and patch things right up, so the very poor may continue to fall only to socially acceptable levels of economic struggle.

Social action is about helping struggling individuals. Romney seems to think that “catching” people is effective socioeconomic intervention. What about identifying and eradicating the systemic issues, practices and hurdles that impoverish people and keep them impoverished? No, I’m not saying: once poor, always poor. I’m saying that beyond individual effort, merit and luck, there are social and institutional factors that facilitate and hinder “upward” socioeconomic mobility: for instance, nepotism in hiring, perpetuated prejudices about class identities (see tomorrow’s post about drug use among people who receive welfare), and discrimination in lending to prospective home buyers, students or entrepreneurs. As much as we need to continue helping socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals and families, we need to address the social and institutional factors that contribute to poverty, or we’ll just end up treating the symptoms without ever addressing the underlying illness.

Majority matters. Regarding both the very poor and the very rich, Romney asserts that he’s “not concerned.” In these back-to-back declarations, he effectively categorizes these two disparate groups together. How is that possible? Because they’re the minority. But let’s be clear: not all minorities are equal. And to dismiss people in need because there aren’t very many of them is unjustifiable. (Not to mention questionable–I’m not sure where Romney is getting his statistics, but the US Census Bureau’s “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage: 2010” reported that 15.1% of US Americans were living in poverty. Even if that’s gotten slightly better over the past year, that’s some millions more people than Romney cares to acknowledge.) Of course, in Romney’s case, advocating for “the 90, 95 percent” is smart campaigning. And Romney’s not the only one who knows his audience…

The middle class v. the poor. Last week on NPR’s Forum, host Michael Krasny was discussing financial access to higher education (http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201201310900). A caller who identified as middle class expressed a sentiment I hear increasingly, opining, “It’s almost easier to be of a lower income bracket to get [Pell] grants.” (Note to this caller: the Pell Grants were explicitly and intentionally created to help low income applicants, so, yes, low income is a main criterion.) Krasny responded sympathetically, noting to his panel that it’s “often the case” with tuition assistance that “the middle class bear the toughest row to hoe… a certain amount of income disentitles you.” I’m sorry: the poor have it “easier”? And the middle class has it the “toughest”? This perspective, while understandably seductive to those of us who have not qualified for a grant, tax break or other financial assistance on the basis of earning “too much,” is based on narrow, selective reasoning. And while Krasny and his caller limited their remarks to the issue of tuition assistance, they were on a slippery and problematic slope, leading to the same dismissal of poverty that Romney has been attacked for, with the same disturbing classist premise: that the middle class are more deserving of our sympathies than the poor (who already “get” all those handouts, right?)

While the question “what about the middle class?” is important for us to ask and answer, I can’t help but feel that the middle class favoritism that is so in vogue right now speaks volumes about the poor’s invisibility and inconsequentiality. And certainly, any transformative social justice is not just for the majority, or for the group that cries, “Disentitled!” the loudest.

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