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?