I’ve been thinking about the media feeding frenzy that enveloped the Romney campaign this week after an ill-advised comment about the poor.
In a CNN interview Wednesday he said, ”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 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
Newsmedia outlets turned the interview into the obligatory soundbyte, rendered as unflatteringly as possible. Several headlines read, “Mitt Romney: ‘I’m not concerned about the very poor.’” It didn’t matter what else he’d said in the interview, or the reasons he made this comment.
Even in light of the full comment, though, Romney comes across as an idiot at best–you just don’t say those kinds of things when you’re running for president.
But Mitt Romney’s not alone. The assumptions behind both his comment and the disparagings of his detractors reveal that, actually, neither side is concerned about the very poor. His critics may think they’re concerned, but even they have bought into a faulty assumption.
Romney said that he’s not concerned about the very poor because this country provides a safety net for them. This is true. Between food stamps, WIC, soup kitchens, clothing closets, Section 8, public housing, TANF, Medicaid, free clinics, and various other entities in the network of government programs and private charities, someone who would qualify as “very poor” can scrape together an existence despite little to no income–as long as he doesn’t mind living in a dangerous neighborhood with limited choices and limited control over his life.
I do not intend here to write an invective against government aid or to address whether the government should play any role in aiding the needy. I and many people I know have benefitted from various forms of government assistance, and I’m grateful for those provisions.
My concern, however, centers on the flawed assumption that caring for the poor means making sure that all their basic physical needs are met. That’s what Romney assumes when he suggests that a functioning safety net removes any need to have concern for the very poor. That’s also what his critics assume when they point out that the current safety net doesn’t sufficiently provide for the physical needs of the very poor, or that Romney’s policies will “shred the safety net,” as one CNN commentator put it.
Romney’s comments about the very poor reveal his basic assumptions. If humans are just bodies that need food, clothing, and shelter, then Romney’s comments make sense. If our purpose on earth is survival–like any other animal–then Romney shouldn’t be concerned about the American poor. The only problem in his reasoning lies in his concern for the middle class, since, despite the difficulties introduced by the recession, they still have sufficient food, clothing, and shelter to ensure survival.
Both Romney and his critics should base concern on more than a person’s level of physical provision. Humans are more than skin, bones, and stomachs. As beings created in God’s image, a sense of dignity and purpose is essential to a person’s humanity. The safety net in that sense potentially robs people of their humanity.
Romney should be very concerned about those caught long-term in the safety net. When a child grows up in an environment of dependency, it can portend an ambitionless future of continued dependency. In my experience teaching students from a background of generational poverty, the effects extended well beyond the economic: a brittle sense of purpose, an anemic level of motivation, a stunted willingness to take responsibility, an atrophied value for human life, a deadening sense of victimization.
I saw similar traits among some of the people in the low-income neighborhood where I used to live. And the scariest sight was the adults who had full-time jobs, who were fighting hard to break free, who, based on their paycheck might have been reckoned “middle class,” but who nonetheless could not attain complete freedom from the mentality inculcated by generational poverty, or from the pressures of surrounding family members and friends still caught in the “safety net.”
Dr. Ruby K. Payne’s research confirms my experiences, as reported in her helpful book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I highly recommend it as a concise but detailed examination of the sociological patterns that led her to conclude that neither poverty nor wealth should be defined narrowly in terms of physical and monetary resources. This definition problem lies at the heart of the flawed assumptions behind Romney’s ill-fated comment and the media’s response.
We can debate whether the government can or should do anything for the poor; whether poverty is induced more by personal failure or systemic failure; whether today’s economic realities even permit people to extricate themselves from the safety net; and we can debate the level of obligation individual Americans have to the poor among us.
But it’s clear that many of us need a more robust and nuanced understanding of what poverty is, why exactly poverty should concern us, and how to address it in ways that are consistent with poverty’s true nature.
PS: There has been a recent slew of books that address this issue from a biblical perspective, including When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett et al (2009), Generous Justice by Tim Keller (2010), and Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton (2011); plus, The Chalmers Center is an organization based at Covenant College in Georgia that puts into practice principles akin to those found in these books. I’ve only read Keller’s book (see my post on that here), but I’d like to read the other two books as I continue to think through this important issue. I may eventually review them here.