Romney's comments may spark a widespread backlash against the kind of contempt for the poor that FDR once overcame.
But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life…
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937
Mitt Romney’s callous remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who “pay no income tax,” are “dependent on government,” see themselves as “victims,” and will never “take personal responsibility… for their lives,” have been seized upon by both conservative and liberal commentators as the strongest indication yet that Romney is out of touch with the American people. They have also proved to be something of an embarrassment for fellow members of his party who are running for office. In Massachusetts, for example, U.S. Senator Scott Brown told the Boston Globe that Romney’s remarks did not represent the way Brown viewed the world. “As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in.” Similar sentiments were echoed by a number of other Republican candidates, like Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who told Politico that as the son of an auto mechanic and a school cook—with five brothers and sisters—he did not "view the world the same way” Romney does. In New Mexico, meanwhile, Republican Governor Susana Martinez responded by noting that her state had “a lot of people that are at the poverty level…but they count as much as anybody else.”
Romney’s remarks have also sparked a good deal of interest in just who the 47 percent are and what this figure means. Ironically, the net result this furor may be to inject a more elevated discussion into the nation’s political discourse about one of the most important issues facing the country: the alarming rise in the number of Americans who have joined the ranks of the poor.
According to official statistics just released by the Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in poverty reached 48.5 million people in 2011, the highest number in 53 years. And while the percentage of Americans living in poverty finally appears to be falling from its high last year of 15.9 percent, it is important to remember that the number of “near poor”—those individuals and families who struggle with incomes just above the poverty line—has topped 51 million. That means the total number of Americans living below or just above the poverty line now stands at just under 100 million—roughly one-third of the population.
Given these statistics, and the growing number of Americans who have retired and are living off of Social Security (which the retirees have paid for through payroll taxes), is it any wonder that approximately 47 percent of the American populace pays no federal income tax? Of course we should not forget that most of these individuals do pay payroll taxes as well as state and local taxes, not to mention sales taxes, which are in place in 45 states.
A far more important question is how it is that the richest country in the world now finds itself with roughly one-third of its population living in such dire economic circumstances. According to Mr. Romney, these 100 million Americans are stuck in or near poverty because they have refused to take “personal responsibility and care for their own lives.” As such, they are quite happy to live on government handouts, firm in their belief that they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Quite apart from the debate over health care, one would have thought that access to food and shelter is not something that a civilized society in the 21st century would deny its most vulnerable citizens—and when pressed Mr. Romney has backed away a bit from such an extreme stance. But the undeniable disdain in his comments for “those people” whom he has characterized as freeloaders who regard themselves as “victims” has sparked a strong negative reaction, even, as noted, from many members of his own party.
This is welcome news, for it may portend the first glimmer of hope that the winner-take-all, you’re on your-own philosophy of the extreme right is being undermined by a far more compassionate and realistic view of how a modern society is supposed to function; a society where we can all agree that government has a responsibility to provide the average citizen with a basic level of economic security and equal access to economic opportunity. This would include policies that ensure that all Americans have equal access to education and affordable health care and where the focus of the debate about the size and role of government would center how best to use government—not eliminate it—in our fight to eradicate poverty.
Seventy years ago, in the midst of an even worse economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt faced a number of critics who characterized the world in a manner that was quite similar to Governor Romney’s. “You know their reasoning,” FDR said. “They say that in the competition of life for the good things of life; ‘Some are successful because they have better brains or are more efficient; the wise, the swift and' the strong are able to outstrip their fellowmen. That is nature itself, and it is just too bad if some get left behind.’” But, he went on:
It is that attitude which leads such people to give little thought to the one-third of our population which I have described as being ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed. They say, "I am not my brother's keeper"—and they "pass by on the other side." Most of them are honest people. Most of them consider themselves excellent citizens.
But this nation will never permanently get on the road to recovery if we leave the methods and the processes of recovery to those who owned the Government of the United States from 1921 to 1933.
In Roosevelt’s day, those who “owned the Government” from 1921 to 1933 promoted the same type of laissez-faire policies that Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan embrace and which contributed to the economic collapse President Obama inherited in 2009. By the mid-1930s, however, most Americans found themselves in agreement with FDR’s comment that “we have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” They also concurred with his view that “out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays.”
Perhaps Mr. Romney has done us all a favor, for his apparent indifference to the plight of “those people” who make up the 47 percent of the American population has forced a good many of his fellow Republicans to admit that government does have a role to play in ensuring we live in a decent society. They may not agree with the Democrats on how just how large a role government should play, but their tacit acknowledgement that government can and must be part of the solution to the nation’s problems is a welcome change from the ceaseless and vacuous claim of the far right that government stands at the root of all our problems.
Who knows; in the long run, it may even lead to the moderation of the Republican Party, something which all Americans, even the 47 percent, would welcome with open arms.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.