Last week, Mitt Romney created a firestorm for saying that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Romney later explained that he “misspoke,” and that he’d said something “similar to that, but quite acceptable, for a long time.”
The real problem isn’t that it misstates Romney’s concerns, but that it accurately states our bipartisan political consensus. Romney’s “gaffe” states a central truth: This nation shows too little concern about the poor.
The rich rulers in high places show amazing indifference to the poor while commercializing a religion that is rooted in a poverty-stricken Jesus. Jesus’ mission was to preach good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free. Too many of those in power are woefully silent about the predicament of the poor.
One in three Americans is in poverty or classified as low income. More than 17 million children live in a household that is “food insecure,” the technical term for going hungry.
One out of every 45 children — 1.5 million in all — is homeless. Of the industrial nations, the U.S. lags in ensuring that poor children get a fair start with adequate nutrition, prenatal care, stable housing and high-quality education.
Most poor people, contrary to what Newt Gingrich might think, are working. When the poor finish high school and can’t afford college, they join the military and perform risky work for America. Unfortunately, many soldiers come home to foreclosure, unemployment and no health care. Hospital workers wipe our brows, clear our bedpans and change our beds when we are sick. They work every day that they can. They take the early bus. They work in minimum-wage and subminimum-wage jobs that can’t lift a family out of poverty.
The poor are Appalachian coal miners who work without adequate safety protections. They are veterans who return victorious from wartime battlefields to face defeat in economic crossfires. The poor tend our children, mow our lawns. They clean up the hotel rooms that Romney and Gingrich sleep in. But the poor can’t afford adequate health care, stable housing, or to send their kids to college.
Yet neither party “concerns” itself with the very poor. They tend not to vote. They can’t afford lobbyists. They don’t make campaign contributions. Even as poverty spreads, politicians in both parties talk about the middle class.
We need targeted intervention by our federal government to provide jobs for our people — an FDR-like program that hires our youth, our returning soldiers, our chronically unemployed.
The last president to express real concern about the poor was Lyndon Johnson. He launched the War on Poverty. By raising the minimum wage, launching jobs programs, extending welfare for poor mothers and children, aiding poor schools, expanding food stamps and Medicare, building affordable housing, Johnson made dramatic strides in reducing poverty.
When Ronald Reagan came in, he painted a dishonest picture of welfare mothers living high on the state. He slashed taxes on the wealthy, doubled the military budget in peacetime and sought to slash poverty programs.
Ironically, the more both parties talk about the middle class, the more the middle class declines. The decline of the minimum wage and of labor unions contributed to declining wages. Good jobs were shipped abroad. College was priced out of the reach of more and more families. Health care costs soared.
Romney said the poor had a safety net, but he would “fix it” by shredding it. He and Gingrich promise more top-end tax cuts, more military spending and less government spending, requiring savage cuts in programs for the poor from aid to poor schools, prenatal care for mothers, Pell grants for college students, affordable housing and more.
Conservatives argue that America is a Christian nation, but these realities offend the faith. Jesus embraced his mission to “preach good news to the poor.” He would judge us by how we treated the “least of these.”