What Romney Doesn't Understand

By Matt Schiavenza of The Morningside Post

In a now-infamous clip taken from an appearance with wealthy donors in May, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that 47 percent of Americans refuse to take responsibility for their own well-being and feel entitled to receive government handouts. Explicitly, Romney was referring to the percentage of Americans who do not pay federal income tax. Implicitly, Romney divided the country into two groups: the workers who produce, and the "moochers" who benefit. If this sounds like a half-baked version of an Ayn Rand novel, you're right. That's the contemporary Republican Party for you.

A core tenet of modern conservatism is that class divisions, such as they exist, are created by confiscatory government policies. The poor remain poor because they have no reason to stop mooching off of the state, forming what Republicans call a culture of dependency. Like a parent embracing tough love and cutting off a child's allowance, modern conservatives believe that shrinking state benefits would free the poor to channel their inner entrepreneur and become wealthy.

To illustrate why this idea is flawed, let's consider a group of people near and dear to our hearts: graduate students. One of the more frequent subjects of grad student gallows humor is our relative poverty. Yet even the most self-pitying grad student has already accumulated wealth beyond the imagination of most poor people.

Most grad students come from families who support their decision to seek higher education. Most have surrounded themselves with successful, well-educated people who serve as positive role models. Most have avoided unwanted pregnancies, drug addiction, and other pitfalls that disproportionately affect the less fortunate. Most have acquired the requisite skills to succeed in the current job market, whether they have found a job or not. Regardless of the bottom line in their financial statements, most grad students cannot be described as "poor" in any meaningful definition of the word.

America's real poor have largely lacked the advantages that grad students have had since birth. Some of them do, against all odds, succeed in life. But a great many struggle. In Mitt Romney's mind, all the poor need are incentives to work hard, and everything will then fall into place. But as the son of the president of a major corporation and former governor, what Romney doesn't realize is that the poor do work hard -- harder than he seems able to imagine. It just isn't always enough. What the poor need, more than money, is access to services that the average American grad student has always taken for granted.

What are these services? There's decent housing, public transportation, healthy food, health care and good schools, for a start. Romney may feel that these services help lull the poor into a sense of complacency, but they're a necessary prerequisite for making contributions to society.

Mitt Romney has based his presidential campaign around the idea that as a highly successful businessman, he knows how to fix the economy. But if he were to be honest about the roots of his success, beginning with his privileged upbringing and high-quality education, then perhaps he'd be less dismissive of the population he wants to govern.