WASHINGTON — I wish Mitt Romney’s cavalier dismissal of poverty in America could be chalked up as just another gaffe, but it’s much worse than that. The Republican front-runner seems dangerously clueless about the nation he seeks to lead.

When I first heard the now-famous quote — “I’m not concerned about the very poor” — I thought it might be fodder for a snarky column about the wee little Mr. Monopoly who lives inside Romney’s head and blurts out things like “Corporations are people, my friend,” or “I like being able to fire people.” But I realized that being “very poor” is no laughing matter to millions of Americans.

Putting Romney’s words in their full context makes them worse. Here is what he said on CNN:

“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 America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

For my part, I’m concerned about what sounds like shocking ignorance about the extent of poverty in this country and an utter lack of urgency about finding solutions.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in September, the poverty rate began rising sharply in 2007 as the recession took hold. By 2010, the report says, 15.1 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line — 46.2 million people who apparently do not merit Romney’s attention.

A substantial plurality of these poor people — about 20 million — are non-Hispanic whites. Roughly 13 million are Hispanic and nearly 11 million are African-American. These figures show that minorities are overrepresented among the poor, but also that poverty is by no means some kind of “minority problem.” It’s an American problem.

And even these numbers are somewhat misleading, since the official poverty threshold is set at a level that many researchers consider unrealistically low. Imagine supporting a family of four on $22,314 a year — food, shelter, clothing, transportation — and being told you’re not poor.

A better measure, in my view, is the number of American families getting by on incomes that equal the poverty level plus an additional 25 percent. By this standard, fully one-fifth of the nation is poor.

Romney says we have a safety net. That’s still true, despite the best efforts of his party to rip it to shreds.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the most important support for people living in poverty — the food stamps program — continues more or less unchanged. Let’s also assume that Romney, as president, manages to “fix” Medicaid and Social Security in a way that does not reduce the benefits they provide to poor people, and that Romney’s tax plan is altered so it does not raise taxes on the lowest earners, as many analysts say it would.

In Romney’s worldview, case closed. No need to be “concerned” about poverty as long as people are not starving.

What our society ought to be concerned about is making sure that poor people have the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. Liberals and conservatives might disagree on how best to accomplish this goal. We can argue about the role government should play versus the private sector. We can dispute the merits of traditional public schools versus charter schools. What we cannot do is simply write off up to one-fifth of the nation’s human potential, as if it were a footnote in a corporation’s annual report.

I’m not blaming Romney for our decades-long failure to address structural poverty. The fact is that our system tends to award benefits to those who wield political and economic power. Romney was clumsily trying to pledge fealty to the interests of the middle class. President Obama, in speech after speech, has been doing the same.

But there was something disturbing about the icy way in which Romney, even when trying to clarify his initial remark, continued to insist that the poor receive government help and therefore need not be a focus of his policies. Even some conservative Republicans were taken aback, with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., saying Romney should “backtrack” and make clear he does not want the poor to languish in “government dependency programs.”

DeMint suggested earlier that Romney take pains to show more empathy. I worry — and the nation should worry — that he can’t show what he doesn’t have.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com. (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

EUGENE ROBINSON, Washington Post Columnist
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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • zephyr

    “The Republican front-runner seems dangerously clueless about the nation he seeks to lead.”

    Well, I’m sure he’s pretty clued in to the needs of millionaires, but that still leaves about 300 million Americans. Btw, the phrase used in the cartoon, “born with a silver foot in his mouth” should be attributed to Ann Richards. She used the phrase in reference to GWB. It’s starting to look like Romney fits it just as well.

  • rudi

    Hate to say it, but Mittens almost makes me miss W. Doin’ a hell of a job Blackie(Snidley Whiplash)…

  • merkin

    So Romney is claiming the mantle of the incompassionate conservative?

    The uncompassionate conservative?

    The non-compassionate conservative?

    Or try antonyms.

    The indifferent conservative?

    The uncaring conservative?

    The malevolent conservative?

    Which ever you chose there can be no doubt that he is;

    The completely tone deaf conservative.

    And I don’t mean his singing.

  • Rcoutme

    Although I believe Romney did not mean to make a gaffe, I know that he did not make a gaffe, he made a true statement. Romney supporters will likely try to spin his statement to something like, “I worry about bringing the poor–who have increased under Obama’s term–back into the middle class.” They truly wish he had said this. They truly want him to have been thinking this. I’m sorry to have to tell them that Mittens did not say this and did not think this.

    The malevolent conservative? I guess I would go with that one. He is not indifferent, uncaring or lacking compassion. He believes what he said. He believes that the poorest among us are doing better than those who have more. I know that sounds stupid, but he truly believes this. His own words show this to be true.

  • JeffP

    Tax Breaks
    Government is the problem
    We need a mega military complex.
    We are Empire.
    Israel IS our foreign policy

    I think Obama is correct, in that it really doesn’t matter who gets the Republican nomination, they are, fundamentally, all alike, and have been for the last 30 years.

    It’s just that choosing a CEO type multi-millionaire, whose biggest goal is to “one-term” Obama, whose cheer-leading phrase continues to be “Unapologetic America!!! Go Go Go” strikes me as hubris, Bush unlimited, and equally unrealistic as his not-worried-about-poor comment.

    Is he a step up from Gingrich? I honestly don’t know.

  • zephyr

    All good ones merkin. Some blending of indifference, tone deafness, and malevolence probably hits the mark. I still don’t like seeing today’s rightwingers called “conservatives”. They are no more conservative than today’s leftwingers are “liberal”.

  • bluebelle

    The GOP seems a bit over-confident about Governor Romney. He is still a weak candidate who is emerging out of one of the weakest Republican fields in memory– Only a pragmatic decision to ignore his evident flaws and a boatload of corporate backers has kept his candidacy afloat thus far.

    Mitt’s participated in 2 presidential elections, a gubernatorial election and one for the US Senate. Despite all of this experience, it appears he still has a tin ear when trying to relate to the average voter. His life experience is nothing like theirs’ which only matters because its increasingly evident that he can readily empathize with banks and corporations over the problems of the average worker.