What Mitt Romney Should’ve Said About the Very Poor

Yes, yes, I know — I’m backseat campaigning. But since the chances are pretty good that Mitt will be our nominee, it behooves us grassroots conservatives to give him some sound advice.

Bottom line? I think Mitt blundered in the following interview:

Mitt Romney: “They want someone who they have confidence in. I believe I will be able to instill that confidence in the American people. By the way, 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 the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.

Soledad O’Brien: “I know I said last question. You said I’m not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?”

Mitt Romney: “Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have the safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle income Americans. My campaign — you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich, that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on Social Security, people who can’t find work, folks that have kids getting ready to go to college. These are the people who have been most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.” (Emphasis added.)

I don’t think he blundered because I’m scared of what the left will do. Screw the left. No matter what our candidate does, Obama’s supporters – who’ve turned arguing in bad faith into a bloody art form – will find something to bludgeon us with. I also don’t think Mitt blundered because I support expanding the Johnsonian “War on Poverty.” Quite the opposite is the case, in fact. I believe Mitt blundered in the above exchange because he evinces a trust in state-based solutions that is simply not warranted and fails to defend the conservative approach to poverty.

We are Catholic (or we wish to be Catholic) here at Right Fans, and we take the Church’s teachings on “social justice” just as seriously as we take the Church’s teachings on, say, abortion and contraception. We believe, therefore, that society’s first duty is to protect the vulnerable and needy. But how do we discharge this task? What public policies should we adopt? These questions are open to prudential decision-making except on one crucial particular: The Church stresses the principle of subsidiarity – i.e., that any challenge should be tackled by the smallest entity that is competent to do so – and opposes collectivism and radical centralization. Therefore, we as Catholics have not fulfilled our religious duties to the poor if we remain content with funneling our tax dollars to federal “anti-poverty” bureaucracies.

The truth is this: Like everything else the federal government touches, our so-called “poverty programs” are rife with inefficiency and abuse. Federal money for “affordable housing,” for example, is being wasted — and as a consequence, such housing is not being built on many vacant lots that were set aside for that purpose. But even when the so-called “benefits” of these programs actually make it to the intended recipients, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing the best we can to help the poor. Yes — for the most part, we are still an economically mobile society; if you are currently in the bottom tax bracket, the probability remains extraordinarily high that you will not be there a few years from now. But there is such a thing as “inter-generational poverty” — and it is being fed by the government. Unfortunately for us, our “safety net” is morphing into a permanent way of life for many who are able-bodied and should be gainfully employed. Those housing vouchers Mitt mentions, for instance? Those should be temporary stopgaps for all but the elderly poor and the disabled, yet many healthy adults are depending on them over the long term.

Our ultimate goal should be to enable people to lift themselves out of poverty — not render them clients of the state in perpetuity. Yet the “safety net” in which Mitt apparently puts his faith is accomplishing the latter – not the former – because it has established a cloud-cuckoo-land of perverse incentives that discourage both marriage and work. Should we be satisfied with this? No — and Mitt shouldn’t be either. Instead, he should emphasize that pro-growth policies that reduce the tax and regulatory burden on employers – combined with a policy that champions genuine, comprehensive energy independence – will do more to help the poor than any government program Obama could devise because such policies will put people back to work. As the Catholic Church teaches, it is work – not dependency – that enhances our human dignity.

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