Mitt Romney Isn't Alone: Politicians Rarely Prioritize the Very Poor

Is there a Republican or Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory whose policy agenda has contradicted that claim?

Here's a proposal for a Constitutional amendment that would never pass: The federal government shall direct all tax deductions and social welfare spending to the poorest fifth of Americans.

It wouldn't be possible to pass equivalent measures by a majority vote of Congress either. The middle class wouldn't go along with being means tested out of Social Security and Medicare. Or losing the mortgage interest deduction. Or severely limiting federal student loan programs.

Federal dollars poured into air travel disproportionately benefit the middle and upper classes. So do NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Park system. In countless ways big and small, ours is a country where the bipartisan consensus favors a mix of federal policies and priorities that disproportionately benefits folks other than the very poor.

That brings us to Mitt Romney:

On Wednesday morning in an interview with CNN, Mr. Romney said, "I'm not concerned about the very poor," a comment that has ricocheted around the Web and cable news channels, and which Mr. Romney took pains to clarify in a brief conversation with reporters as he flew to Minnesota. The comment seems to have captivated the political psyche because it reinforces the Democrats' biggest line of attack against Mr. Romney, as well as the Republicans' worst fear: that Mr. Romney's net worth, estimated at $200 million, leaves him out of touch and unable to relate to average Americans who are struggling.

Taken in  the full context of his remarks, as Mr. Romney urged reporters to do, his statement appears more benign: "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich -- they're doing just fine."
It should perhaps make us uncomfortable that our government is mostly focused on relatively privileged citizens, and that we think little about the very poor aside from providing a safety net. But it's true of every viable presidential candidate from both major political parties, and the vast majority of pundits too. All Romney can be faulted for in this instance is saying he'll behave as everyone else does without acknowledging it openly.

Shouldn't we prefer a political discourse where forthrightness of that kind isn't treated as a fault? Romney's statement may hurt him with voters. But it shouldn't. 
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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