What Romney got wrong about half of America

By Mitt Romney’s measure, my grandmother was a moocher.

You’ve probably heard about the Republican standard-bearer’s remarks videotaped at a private fundraiser in May and released this week. Romney characterized the 47 percent of people who pay no income tax as irresponsible with entitlement issues.

Romney has said his comments were “not elegantly stated.” But I’ve found that people say what they mean when they think they are speaking privately.

Romney’s language was all-inclusive. He didn’t say some of the 47 percent (although it’s really 46 percent) feel like victims or look for handouts. He said all the people who pay less income tax than the wealthy crowd he was appealing to “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he said.

Well, the wealthy and corporations benefit from many types of government entitlements, especially in the form of tax breaks. Are they irresponsible? Are they moochers? Nonetheless, if we can put politics aside, let’s look at this candid moment by a presidential candidate as a window into how so many people feel about the poor, the unemployed, or in general the folks who benefit from government assistance.

Well-off individuals frequently talk about the less fortunate with unbelievable disdain and without the self-realization that they, too, are often just a job-loss away from needing help.

Lose your job and you often lose your health insurance. Get sick without health insurance and you’re likely to understand what it is like to be impoverished.

Romney was talking about nearly half of Americans who work and worry about earning enough to support their families, pay rent or the mortgage, save what they can to send their children to college or invest for their retirement. He was not just talking about the poor but also about middle-income Americans. He was talking about seniors who rely on Social Security. He was talking about the disabled who can’t work and need help. And yes, he was talking about some folks who could do more for themselves but haven’t for a number of reasons.

Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post, says it’s true that last year about 46 percent of American households paid no income taxes. “But this is one of these ‘facts’ that is not very informative,” he wrote recently. “‘Income taxes’ are just one type of tax that people pay, and for most working Americans — about three-quarters — payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare far exceed what they pay in income taxes.”

More specifically, noted the Post’s Ezra Klein, the majority of Americans who paid no federal income taxes “have jobs and, when you account for both sides of the payroll tax, they paid 15.3 percent of their income in taxes, which is higher than the 13.9 percent that Romney paid. Another 22 percent were elderly.”

The 47 percent Romney talked about could be you. A new report by the Consumer Federation of America and Primerica found that two-thirds of middle-class Americans have made costly financial mistakes.

Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size and fallen backward in income and wealth, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. A national survey of 2,508 adults by Pew found that one in three Americans now says he or she is part of the lower or lower-middle class, compared with one in four Americans who identified as such four years ago.

I’m deeply concerned and incensed about the flippant references to the less wealthy half of our country. Before you think it, let me say it again. Yes, many people do act irresponsibility, and such behavior can cause great financial issues in their lives and result in government assistance. And yet, we still need to speak with compassion for those who need a hand up. We do need safety nets.

Big Mama, my grandmother, worked hard and made a decent living as a nursing assistant that allowed her to buy and pay off her home before she retired. She paid all her bills on time. However, she didn’t make enough money to afford health insurance for the five grandchildren she raised, including three with major medical issues. She received medical assistance from the state that covered the bills for my juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a sister with asthma and a brother who had epilepsy.

My grandmother never saw herself as a victim. She did not have an entitlement mentality. She was one of the most financially responsible people I’ve ever known. Mr. Romney, Big Mama was not a moocher.

Michelle Singletary: singletarym@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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