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Thursday, Feb 2, 2012, 3:37 pm

The Truth About Mitt Romney’s “Very Poor” Comment

By Theo Anderson

Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich during an ABC News debate in December 2011.
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images)

Mitt Romney has a point. The firestorm over his comment that he isn’t concerned about “the very poor” is nonsense, and this is one of the rare cases where the full context does change everything. For two reasons. 

First, it’s hardly news that the poor are a low priority for the GOP. Politicians go where the votes are, and few votes are in play among the poor as defined by Romney—that is, the poorest five percent of the population. It may be politically dumb to say it out loud. But do we really want politicians to be more hedged and calculating in every comment?

More importantly, Romney went on to admit the need for a “safety net” and promised to fix it “if it needs repair."

Oh, really?

Romney’s callousness makes for a great sound bite. But what about his endorsement of a role for government? What exactly did he mean by repairing the safety net? And what is the proper scope of that net? Why not focus on those questions? 

The foundation of America's welfare state, Social Security, has been such a success in reducing poverty among the elderly, and has achieved such popularity, that it’s difficult to imagine the outrage it provoked in the 1930s. It was an open question whether it would survive challenges in several Supreme Court cases. It did, narrowly. But many conservatives have never accepted the basic premise underlying it: that government can play a positive role in society.

Among the base that Romney is having so much trouble winning over, ceding any ground on that question was his real gaffe. Don’t imagine that it went unnoticed. Rush Limbaugh was all over it almost instantly.  “I even have a problem with this in context,” he thundered during his show on Wednesday. “This safety net is one of the biggest cultural problems we’ve got! We had better be worried about it, just like we had better get angry over Obamacare. . .This biz, ‘I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.’ Right. The safety net is contributing to the destruction of their humanity and their futures!”

The standard defense in incidents of this sort is “my words were taken out of context.” For once, that’s actually true. And the thing is: the full context is much more interesting than the sound bite. If Mitt Romney is willing to talk about repairing the nation's safety net, let’s go there.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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