Mitt Romney - Caricature
Mitt Romney – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

“Poverty is an anomaly to rich people: it is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell.” –Walter Bagehot

As Mitt Romney seems to suggest in a video released yesterday by Mother Jones, are the poor merely lazy people who demand government handouts?

Here’s what Romney told attendees at a fundraiser in Florida in May:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Other than Romney, who actually shares that view of people living at or just above the poverty? (The poverty rate is actually far lower than 47 percent, but for argument’s sake let’s just focus on Romney’s evident disdain for the nation’s working poor.) Turns out almost a third of the American public shares Romney’s basic views about the lazy, entitled poor.

A report released in May by the Salvation Army, “Perceptions of Poverty,” revealed that 27 percent of Americans said people are poor because they are lazy, not because of dire economic conditions.

Another 43 percent surveyed said those in poverty can find work if they really wanted it. The survey of more than 1,000 Americans was conducted in February 2012.

When I first published this post back in May, I observed that this brought to mind a dramatic scene in the wonderful 2002 novel, Snow, by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. It offers profound insights into our collective perceptions of the poor. In the novel, as a group of radicals in the rural northeast Turkish town of Kars debates the wording of a protest statement they want published in a German newspaper, a Kurdish youth warns against seeking the compassion from the West:

People might feel sorry for a man who’s fallen on hard times, but when an entire nation is poor, the rest of the world assumes all its people must be brainless, lazy, dirty, clumsy fools. Instead of pity, the people provoke laughter. It’s all a joke: their culture, their customs, their practices. . . . [W]hen a Westerner meets someone from a poor country, he feels deep contempt. He assumes that the poor man’s head must be full of all the nonsense that plunged his country into poverty and despair.

Without doubt, those, like Romney and his wealthy backers, who disparage the poor as lazy do not know them and have never observed their lives, nor lived their experiences. My guess is that most Americans have no idea that millions of families in poverty are headed by hard-working, under-earning parents.

According to a recent report by the Working Poor Families Project:

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that in 2010, there
were more than 10 million low-income working families in the
United States. Between 2007 and 2010, the share of working
families who are low-income—earning less than 200 percent of
the official poverty threshold—increased from 28 percent to 31
percent. This means that nearly one in three working families in
the United States is struggling to meet basic needs.

Although low-income working families remain mostly invisible
to policymakers, these families are comprised of workers who
form the backbone of our economy: working the cash registers,
keeping our homes and businesses clean, preparing our food,
and helping care for our children and elderly relatives. during
these grave economic times, policymakers must choose to invest
in these low-income workers and their families. Such
investments are vital for the United States to maintain a strong,
growing economy as well as to promote economic mobility and
“reduce the personal, social and economic costs imposed by low
wages and poverty” in America.

While millions of Americans are working with limited success to feed and clothe their families, millions of better-off Americans — and the GOP presidential nominee — seem to be working hard to ignore them or blame them for their plight.

Take a look at the statistics for the poor in your state here.

4 thoughts on “Mitt Romney and the Lazy Poor

  1. Good post, Bob. The following is in the spirit of friendly discussion ….

    The scariest statement quoted is “policymakers must choose to invest in these low-income workers and their families.” This is, of course, code for new government programs. If this debate is to be objective and not just emotional, where is the evidence that government can solve the problem of poverty? LBJ started trying with the Great Society in 1965. 47 years later, having spent hundreds of billions of dollars, we at best seem to be holding our own.

    Further, there are only three ways to pay for such programs – shift money from other programs (thereby continuing the current deficit crisis), increase deficit spending, or raise taxes. Each of these is really just wealth redistribution, and if more than 40% of the public think the poor can find a job if they want one, how likely is that to happen?

    The frequent response to the observation that bigger government hurts the economy is that “investing” in the poor is actually good for the economy. I like to refer to this as the “Trickle-Up Theory.” My Democratic friends have been stigmatizing supply-side economics as the “Trickle-Down Theory” since the Reagan Era. Supply-side economics invests in people who create jobs. The poor don’t create jobs, they spend money, and many of the things they buy are made in Indonesia, China, and Brazil.

    The Obama Administration tried to stimulate the economy by giving people back some of their own money to spend. Where is the evidence that this had any positive effect in any proportion to the harm caused by the deficit it helped to create?

    This is not to say that the poor aren’t worthy of government spending, but the advocates of such spending should be open about it.

    As I said, all meant in the spirit of friendly discussion.


    1. Thanks, Greg. I appreciate the comments. First, I think there is actually lots of evidence the stimulus worked and the GOP should be taking some credit for it. After all, more than a third of the bill was tax cuts that the GOP insisted upon and then voted against. Those were tax cuts that are still in effect and for which Republicans give Obama no credit while accusing him of raising taxes. (Check the job creation numbers under Obama compared to Bush and you’ll see quite an impressive difference.)

      Second, investing in the poor doesn’t mean shoveling money to people. It could be something as simple as investing more in education and worker training programs. LSU, as you may know, has gone from 60 percent state support to 40 percent in only three years. Much of that difference has been made up by increased tuition, of course, but it’s also resulted in few classes and a full 10 percent of the faculty has left for other universities in other states. The repercussions of Louisiana’s devaluation of higher education will be severe. Fewer young people will be able to attend college and that, I’m afraid, will result in fewer opportunities here and much slower job creation. Our young people aren’t dumb and they’ll go — and have been going — to other states that value education young people. That exodus has already made Louisiana older and poorer and the recent cuts to higher education will only speed up that process.

      But my main point is this: most poor people aren’t poor because they choose to be. They aren’t poor because they are stupid or lazy. Many of them are old and can’t work, or are young and are working — very hard — but just don’t make enough to support their families. I don’t think those people want government handouts. They do, however, want a fair shot at a decent life and expect their government to help them here and there in small but important ways. What they see too often is a system rigged by the wealthy to help the wealthy get wealthier.

      One way that’s experience is our tax system. We could help the poor a great deal if Louisiana would stop taxing the poor at twice the rate as the rich. In Louisiana, the poor pay about 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes (income, sales and property taxes) while those in the upper income levels pay about 5 percent. That’s a very screwed up system that was made much worse when the legislature repealed the Stelly Plan, approved by a majority of voters. We now have, again, a very regressive tax system that’s titled toward the wealthy. When I see a state cut taxes on the wealthy but leave taxes (relatively) high on the poor, it says to me that our priorities are way out of order.

      There’s actually quite a bit I think government could do to help. The big corporations and their armies of lobbyists seem to think the government has lots to do with wealth creation, or else they wouldn’t devote so much time to changing the tax system to suit them. But fairness is really what most people want and the polls suggest that the vast majority of Americans don’t think the system is fair to the average worker.


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