In the sound bite heard ’round the world, Mitt Romney said in an interview yesterday with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, “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 the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
O’Brien jumped in. “There are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say, ‘That sounds odd,'” she said.
“Well, finish the sentence, Soledad,” Romney replied. “I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. We will hear from the Democrat party, the plight of the poor. And there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. 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. Retirees living on Social Security, people who can’t find work, folks that have kids that are getting ready to go to college. These are the people most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor. But the middle income Americans, they’re the folks that are really struggling right now and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them.”
I understand that presidential candidates, who speak non-stop, will use awkward constructions from time to time. Still, the phrase “I’m not concerned about the very poor” is jarring. It reinforces the worst caricature of Republicans. And it provides the Obama campaign with a sound bite it will use from now until election day, if Romney is the nominee.
But it’s actually worse than that. Even if you were inclined to be generous and say Romney’s formulation was an innocent blunder, his efforts to explain his comments were also quite problematic. It’s true a bad economy hurts everyone, but it hurts no one more than the poor, even with a safety net in place. (In addition, it’s not as if those in the middle class don’t have government programs available to them.) And economic growth helps everyone in a society, but none more than the poor. One of the main moral defenses of democratic capitalism, after all, is that it’s done more than any economic system in history to lift people out of mass poverty and mass misery.
Romney’s answer is also a tip off that he’s simply unfamiliar with the intellectual/policy work done by conservatives over the years whose explicit purpose has been to help the poor, including reforms in welfare, crime, and education. (Many of those reforms have been terrifically successful.)
But it goes even deeper than that. Some of us believe a society should be judged in large part by how it treats the poor, the defenseless, and the disadvantaged. “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy,” David writes in the Psalms. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern,” according to Proverbs. “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me,” Jesus said in Matthew.
Now precisely how these concerns translate into government policy is a complicated matter — but some of us became conservatives in some measure because we believed liberalism had failed the underclass and conservatism had something important to offer. So to have the likely Republican nominee say “I’m not concerned about the very poor” reveals a mindset that is disquieting.