Even in an era of increasingly inane political oratory, Mitt Romney's latest comments stand out. Fresh off his primary win in Florida, an ebullient Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien, that he wasn't concerned about the very poor in America -- that he was choosing to focus his political energies on the plight of middle-income Americans.
O'Brien seemed somewhat stunned by this admission, and asked the likely Republican presidential candidate to explain. Well, he hastened to say, what he was saying was that he wasn't concerned about the very poor because they had a social safety net to fall back on, and if there were holes in that net he would repair it.
Clearly, Romney was being surprisingly candid in the opening part of his statement: In recent years, neither political party has prioritized poverty, nor has either party, wedded as they are to large donations from wealthy donors, really embarked on a serious effort to address growing income inequality in the country or to adequately tackle the national shames of mass homelessness and joblessness that have defined so much of the past half-decade. But, at least rhetorically, the Democratic Party has acknowledged that poverty is a problem, and, over the past months in particular, has tried to include the voices of America's burgeoning poor in the national conversation about political priorities.
Romney, who earned $42 million in the past two years, and who sits on a quarter-billion dollar personal fortune, has apparently concluded not only that poverty isn't a problem, but that there's no political hay to be made in seeking the support of the nearly 50 million Americans whom the government itself defines as living below the poverty line.
Having spent the past six months traversing the country, interviewing impoverished Americans about their lives, for an audio archive titled thevoicesofpoverty.org, I feel pretty confident in saying that poverty most certainly is a problem, perhaps one of America's largest problems -- certainly one of its most morally urgent. On the site, one can listen to stories such as that of Frank Nicci, a one-time chef in central Pennsylvania who lost a leg to diabetes, lost his job, and ended up so far in debt that he can't even afford gas money to drive to see his children. One can hear Aubretia Edick, a woman in her 60s, talking about working for Wal-Mart and still having to skip meals and only able to minimally heat her northern New York home in winter. One can hear a high school counselor in Las Vegas talking about the nearly 200 homeless students she works with in one school.
The federal government defines poverty cautiously. To qualify as poor, an individual has to have access to under $11,000 a year; a family of four to $22,000.
Yet even by those meager measures, the Census Bureau estimates that over 46 million Americans live in poverty, tens of millions of them in "deep poverty," meaning they have incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line. Following the housing bust and financial freefall of 2007-8, there are now more Americans in poverty today than at any point in the last half century.
About 46 million Americans are on food stamps, and millions more are poor enough to qualify but for many reasons are not receiving government assistance -- many literally skip meals on a regular basis. In states like Texas, approximately one quarter of children live in poverty. Fourteen million people are unemployed, and millions more are out of work but no longer looking for employment. They are euphemistically defined as being "jobless."
Last year, the Census Bureau estimated that 1.8 million hours workers have jobs that pay the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, and 2.5 million earn below the legal minimum. After decades of Congressional reluctance to properly raise the minimum wage to reflect the cost of living, these millions of workers remain mired in poverty.
For these millions of men, women and children, their lives are circumscribed by their poverty, in ways that a man who earns tens of millions of dollars a year cannot begin to imagine. For these people, eating a decent meal means sacrificing necessary medicines; paying the rent means putting off buying a new pair of shoes or school supplies for the kids; replacing a blown tire on their car might well mean having to postpone paying the monthly bills and risking the electricity or gas being cut off.
It's the second part of Romney's stumbling interview performance that most interests me, however. In launching an improvised damage control salvo, Romney committed himself, if elected president, to repairing any holes that might exist in America's social safety net.
What a strange promise for a Republican presidential candidate to make, and what a wonderful opportunity for a national conversation on poverty.
Let's hold Romney to this promise by sending him wish lists for safety net repair. All over the country people are working on problems. The candidate wants to hear about them -- and Americans, en masse, should respond. Write him letters, phone his offices, help him repair the holes.
Here are a few ideas I'd like candidate Romney to look at as he sets out on his new war on poverty:
In California, the state that I live in, only half of food stamp-eligible residents are on the federal program. Romney should commit all the might of the federal government to ensuring that the millions of Californians who aren't enrolled receive the benefits that they are legally entitled to.
Nationally, the single biggest cause of personal bankruptcy is medical bills. That's quite a hole in the safety net. Since Romney has vowed to overturn the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office, one presumes his team is already hard at work studying how to limit, rather than increase, the number of Americans plunged into destitution by a broken healthcare delivery system.
In recent years, a huge number of local, state, and federal assistance programs for the homeless have been cut back. Since Romney is now on record as saying he will repair all holes in the social safety net, I look forward, with eager anticipation, to seeing his plan to end mass homelessness in America. Perhaps, come 2013, I will no longer see homeless men and women sleeping under freeway overpasses in virtually every city in America.
Finally, there's the problem of the minimum wage, the existence of which is so loathed by large segments of the GOP and its corporate backers. Where many of Romney's colleagues want to end the minimum wage, I have to assume that a man committed to filling in the holes in the safety net is, in contrast, now committed to increasing it. After all, there's something truly ghastly about a large company paying a middle-aged, or elderly worker, $7.25 an hour, and then either not paying for health insurance or making the worker pay thousands of dollars a year in premium contributions and co-pays. Romney could end this problem in one of two ways: either support an increase in the minimum wage to something closer to a "living wage" level, a practice already embraced by several cities and states throughout the country, or support the provisions within the Affordable Care Act that make it harder for employers to opt out of their responsibilities on providing health coverage to workers.
It's not every day that a major national political candidate commits himself, on air, to fixing all the holes in the frayed safety net. If only he meant what he so glibly said.
Follow Sasha Abramsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/voicesofpoverty