Does Romney's 'I'm Not Concerned About the Very Poor' Line Matter?

Romney's comment isn't a gaffe so much as an artless description of his tax policy. He's more concerned about cutting taxes for middle class investors than he is for keeping taxes low on the poorest Americans.

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Reuters

After his impressive victory in the Florida GOP primary, Mitt Romney told CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it."

He continued: "I'm not concerned about the very rich. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."

When O'Brien suggested that "lots of very poor Americans" would find that comment odd, he continued, "You can focus on the very poor, that's not my focus. The middle income Americans, they're the folks that are really struggling right now and they need someone that can help get this economy going for them." The CNN video of part of the interview is also embedded at the bottom of this post.

Democrats are squealing in delight that the fabulously rich GOP frontrunner has ostensibly admitted, eyes facing a live camera, that he doesn't care about the poor. The line is tailor-made to be taken out of context, but if you read closely, Romney is absolutely not saying he has no regard for the very poor. He's saying he believes that the safety net we have is sufficient to protect them.

There are probably plenty of people who agree with Romney. After all, the safety net has been a century-long project of the federal government, from Social Security to food stamps to 99-week unemployment benefits. Since the Great Recession assistance to the very poor has increased tremendously, preventing poverty from rising above 16%. As Jordan Weissmann reported for us, total safety-net spending -- which includes state and federal Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and private assistance such as mortgage loan write-downs and credit card discharges -- grew by 50 percent between 2007 and 2010, from $10,000 per needy adult, to $15,000. In 2010, half of households took government benefits, the largest share in U.S. history.

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So, Romney's right. The social safety net does a lot. But does it do enough? 

To begin to answer that question, it's worth pointing out that today's social safety net isn't tomorrow's social safety net. The 99-week unemployment benefits will end as employment grows, and they should. Expanded income security measures will fall away as we whittle down domestic spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the debt ceiling deal) and other laws. Republicans want to pare it back even further with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and domestic spending.

This is what austerity does. It forces us to make tough choices about who wins and who loses. Mitt Romney has made his choice. His tax plan is basically today's tax policy with more support for businesses and investors, and less for the poor. First, he makes investment income tax free for the middle class. Second, he cuts corporate income taxes. Third, he repeals the estate tax. And fourth, he does not extend the tax cuts created by the 2009 stimulus bill, which Obama has proposed keeping. Romney's tax proposal would "raise taxes for households in the bottom two quintiles, relative to what they're paying this year," wrote Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center, even as it cuts taxes for middle class investors.

In light of this, Romney's comment isn't a gaffe so much as an artless description of his tax policy. He's more concerned about cutting taxes for middle class investors and businesses than he is for keeping tax rates low for lower-income Americans. You and I might have different ideas about whether that's the right direction for our tax policy. But I hope we can agree that this isn't the kind of thing you want advertised with gaffes about "not being concerned" about the very poor.

***

Whenever I write about tax policy, I'm asked how I would address our ridiculous tax code. The short answer is that I would lower the rates, shave the tax expenditures, and raise revenue, starting at the top. My chief beef with Romney is that he's not interested in more revenue, but he also thinks 2011 taxes are too low for millions of lower-income families.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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