When Mitt Romney said that he didn't care about the very poor last week, he was only stating the obvious. Whether it was a gaffe, or a rare moment of candor for the on-again, off-again GOP front runner is for the pundits to debate. But the plain fact is that the poor, who do not vote in great numbers, or contribute to political campaigns, fell off the political radar screen a long time ago.
The candidate cited as the reason for his unconcern the adequacy of the federal safety net. He did not mention that this safety net has been under full frontal assault by himself and his fellow Republican candidates, and is already frayed to the breaking point for many of our nation's poor, including over 16 million children who live in poverty, the highest number in half a century.
I am seeing a lot more children lately in the church basement soup kitchen where I help serve Sunday lunch. Poor kids in America don't have distended bellies or suffer from other obvious signs of malnutrition, as children in places like Somalia often do. But that does not mean that they aren't suffering.
One in four American children are food insecure, according to the USDA. That is a polite way of saying they don't get enough of the right foods to stay healthy. But we are unlikely to hear much about this growing problem in the upcoming election campaign.
Childhood hunger is an invisible epidemic. Invisible, because there is no political will in America to address it, or even acknowledge that it exists. But invisible also because hungry children aren't starving, so we can't tell by looking at them. Yet these undernourished youngsters are more prone to get sick, to have social and behavioral problems, and to suffer impairments to their growing bodies and developing brains which interfere with their ability to concentrate and learn.
The social costs of poor nutrition include increased medical and hospitalization expenses and lowered earning capacity when these children grow up. These costs are poised to rise exponentially in the years ahead. A 2010 report by the group "Feeding America" reveals that hunger for all age groups has swelled a whopping 46 percent since the recession began in 2006.
We don't like to talk about these uncomfortable facts. But Mitt Romney has done us all a favor. His callous dismissal of the poor has touched a raw nerve. Or perhaps we should say that it has opened up a festering wound in our national psyche -- the richest land on earth where some live out on the streets, and others go to bed hungry at night. The time has come for us to clean that wound.
We may not want to feel the pain of the poor, but in hard economic times for all, their plight is no longer so difficult for the rest of us to imagine. That's bad news for politicians like Romney and the other Republican candidates who think that poverty is a problem that we have already solved. Don't tell that to the roughly one in six Americans who can't afford health insurance. Don't tell it to the young who are moving back in with their family because they can no longer pay their rent, or to those who can't raise the tuition to send their kids to college, or who have to work multiple low paying jobs just to make ends meet.
A startling one in every two Americans surveyed in the latest census fell below the poverty line, or were officially classified as low income. That is a lot of voters, even if many of them won't show up at the polling place next November.
But the larger problem for Romney, should he win the Republican nomination, will not be the poor, who wouldn't vote for him anyway. It is the millions of still well-fed citizens who, nevertheless, feel the dogs of poverty nipping at their heels, and are anxious that they too won't slip through the holes in Mr. Romney's safety net.