Wednesday, February 01, 2012

America and the Poor

I don't know Mitt Romney's heart, so I can't say for sure what he meant when he said that the "Very Poor" aren't a priority  for him.  In context he was saying that there's a safety net that will catch the poor and the rich do well, and so the focus should be on those in the middle.  President Obama also speaks of strengthening the middle class.  

But, the "gaffe" does speak volumes, not only of Romney's views, but those held by many of us in America. Ultimately, do we really care about the very poor?  

Romney's problem is that his own wealth insulates him from the realities of so many Americans.  His father grew up poor, but he didn't.  He may not have inherited his wealth, but his father was able to give him the foundation educationally, socially,  culturally, and economically that allowed him to succeed.  His father was, in many  ways, a self-made man, but it's difficult to say the same about Romney.  That tone-deafness underlines what has the tinge of a "Freudian slip" to it.  

But Romney's lack of concern for the poor is shared fairly widely.  In fact, I think that we all are stained by a lack of concern for those most at risk.  I live fairly well as a middle class professional.  I've been on the edge at times, but there was always someone somewhere who helped sustain me.  And I had the benefits of an education that helped me in life.

So, politics aside -- where do the poor really fit in our sense of God's realm?  What responsibility do we have for them?  Giving food to the hungry is helpful.  Teaching skills so that the poor can get jobs is helpful.  But at the end of the day, there are systemic and structural impediments that place a ceiling on the opportunities for many if not most who are poor.  The cycle of poverty is difficult to escape.  It's not about food stamps versus pay checks.  Many, if not most, Americans who are on food stamps have jobs, it's just that those jobs don't pay enough to provide enough food for the family.  

So, how do we change the system?  How do we work toward truly leveling the playing field at a time when the income disparity between the richest and the poorest is growing exponentially.  And it's not just a Mitt Romney, but look at athletes and movie stars.  The minimum salary for a major league baseball player is about $350,000 -- about what Romney made from speeches last year.   Top players are making 15 million and up per year.  They can get that kind of money because professional sports is big business.  They get their share, but the owners make their share.  

It may seem unseemly, but its reality.  So how do we make a real difference, especially at a time when the safety net that Mitt Romney speaks of is under duress?   Or in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge -- "are there no prisons?  Are there no poor houses?"   Is this the good news Jesus spoke of?

1 comment:

John said...

A well-formed sense of compassion would never have allowed Romney to even formulate the phrase that the "very poor are not a priority," regardless of the context. A strong moral compass renders us sensitive not just to how our words will be received by others but how they sound to ourselves. Words and phrases which offend our moral compass do so even as they tumble out of our mouths.

Language is an expression of the self. Casual language is perhaps the truest measure of one's deepest feelings - our guard is down and we are not looking over our shoulder to see who is listening - but we are always listening.

If one has genuine concern for the very poor, especially when speaking casually, one could not dismiss or minimize their plight - the words just sound wrong on one's tongue - they offend the self. And when the words sound wrong on the tongue, as they sometimes do, we feel compelled to immediately self-correct and apologize to ourselves if to no one else. But if they are from the heart they don't sound wrong at all, and there is no compulsion forcing us to deal immediately with our moral blunder.

I think in Romney's casual dismissal we begin to see the cold heart of the republican party and the Christian Right which is pulling its strings.

By the way, the claim that there is a safety net to catch the very poor s bizarre given the virulence of Republican attack on the social welfare system in this country. To attack the food stamp program in one political speech while proclaiming the reliability of the welfare safety net in the next speech is nothing short of moral bankruptcy.

The unfortunate thing is that Romney is perhaps the best the Republicans have to offer this time around.