The problem with Mitt Romney's latest boneheaded statement -- "I'm not concerned about the very poor" -- isn't the ammunition it gives political opponents eager to yank the candidate's words out of context. The deeper problem is that Romney's remarks betray a trio of fundamental misunderstandings: of the nature and scope of poverty in America; the state of the social safety net; and the impact of his own proposals on protections for the poorest Americans.
"I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there," Romney told CNN's Soledad O'Brien. "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, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."
It is a bipartisan truth that talking about the poor has fallen out of political fashion. Both parties prefer to focus their rhetoric on the beleaguered middle class, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is where the votes are. But Romney seems implicitly to be suggesting that the middle class somehow has it worse than the poor. "The middle-income Americans, they're the folks that are really struggling right now," he said.
Romney's numbers are as skewed as his logic. He seems heedless of the unpleasant fact that the poverty rate in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, was 15.1 percent. Even more disturbing, more than one in five children -- 22 percent -- was living below the poverty line, $22,314 for a family of four.
The breadth of current poverty and its long-term implications merit more than this dismissive treatment. Growing up in poverty makes it more likely that you will be stuck there as an adult. More child poverty means reduced earning power later in life and less overall economic growth. That's an argument for paying attention to poverty that a Bain Capital Republican can love.
As to that "very ample safety net," as Romney phrased it, not exactly. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has one of the least generous safety nets in the wealthy developed world.
"We have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor," Romney said.
Food stamps provide about $1.44 daily per person per meal. Medicaid covers poor children but only the very poorest parents, up to 37 percent of the poverty line if they are not working and 63 percent if they are employed. This hole in the safety net would be filled by the new health care law, with Medicaid coverage for adults up to 133 percent of poverty -- but Romney would repeal the law.
Housing vouchers? One in four poor renters receives housing assistance. Supplemental Security Income for the impoverished elderly and disabled lifts them to 75 percent of the poverty level. In 1996, 68 of every 100 families in poverty received welfare assistance; by 2009, that number had fallen to 27 out of 100.
Romney promises to repair any holes in the safety net, but his programs would shred it further. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Romney's promise to increase defense expenditures while capping total federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product would require across-the-board cuts of 17 percent by 2016.
If Romney isn't concerned about the very poor, he should be. Especially about what would happen to them with a President Romney in the White House and his policies in effect.