The Very Poor, the Middle Class and the Real Economic Challenge of 2012

02/02/2012 05:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012
  • Tiziana Dearing Assoc. Prof. Boston College Social Work, Anti-Poverty CEO

The Republican presidential race is giving those of us focused on poverty a lot of fodder. The latest comes courtesy of Mitt Romney in Florida with his now-famous, if unfortunate, sound bite, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." Romney complains that the quote was taken out of context. Even in context, it reveals a lack of understanding about key facts that we need to grasp if most Americans are going to be able to live the lives they want.

Here is Mr. Romney's whole quote

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.

Let's leave the implication that the very poor and very rich somehow aren't "Americans" for another day. I don't think Mitt Romney was saying he doesn't actually care about the "very poor." In fact, I believe he does care -- as do most reasonable people. But he clearly doesn't understand what "very poor" means, or how it relates to the middle class today.

To start, Romney has the "very poor" to "very rich" continuum sideways. It's vertical, and he clearly sees it as horizontal. For those who don't enjoy spatial relations, let me illustrate.

Imagine if Romney had said, "I'm not concerned about the very far Left because Reason A, and I'm not concerned about the very far Right because Reason B." Those represent extremes on a horizontal continuum, running from the left to the right. Both ends are opposites, but the implication is that they are also equal in status. For some reason, each end is adequately taken care of, so one safely can focus on the middle.

Romney put the very poor and the very rich on just such a horizontal continuum. But they aren't. They are on a vertical continuum that runs from bottom to top. And while being on the bottom of that continuum is opposite from being on top, it is definitely not equal. The social safety net at best keeps people from falling into desperation. So, no, both ends are not sufficiently taken care of that one safely can focus on the middle.

Second, Romney pits the poor against the middle class in a way that not only is unhelpful, but also shows a lack of understanding of the current American economic experience.

At Boston Rising, we think of all Americans as part of a single class. We call it the Rising Class. That's not just some can't-we-all-get-along platitude. It reflects our deep understanding of and commitment to the American Dream - in this country, you get the tools to rise, to be who you want to be and to make the life you want, and then it's up to you. We all are part of the Rising Class. Historically, though, some of us have had better access to the tools for rising.

That's where Romney's understanding is flawed. The very poor are very experienced with barriers to rising. The truth for them is that the tools -- things like education, an upwardly-mobile job, a decent social network, some savings -- are hard to get a hold of, and hard to hold onto once obtained.

In this most recent economic crisis, large swaths of the middle class are sharing that same experience. It's harder to put away some savings, get through high school and college, get a job that has a future, etc. Our social networks are weaker, and they are harder to rely on because everyone's busy, everyone's looking, and everyone is in the same leaky financial boat.

When Romney says he is focused on Americans, the heart of our country, and then says that's the middle class but not the poor, he's creating a false dichotomy. Those are all members of the Rising Class who can't get a hold of the tools for rising. Our solutions should not focus on picking one over the other, making one more American or more important than the other. Our solutions should focus on restoring the basic building blocks of the American Dream and then making them accessible to as many people as possible. What is to our economy today as the GI Bill was to soldiers after World War II?

If we stop calling it sideways when it's up and down, and if we focus less on class and more on Rising Class, we can get busy with the task at hand -- restoring the conditions to participate in the American Dream. Ultimately, we could get a whole lot more members of the Rising Class who could become the very rich.

Then we could stop worrying about them. They probably really are OK.