All this can be written off as just a bit of self-flattery. Imagine you’re Romney, the Republican presidential nominee: For the past year you’ve been unable to grab a clear lead in the polls against an incompetent who has been unable to get unemployment below 8 percent or reach a reasonable debt-reduction deal with Congress. Which would you prefer to believe? That you’re not good enough, not smart enough and doggone it, people just don’t like you? Or that the incumbent Democrat has effectively bought off half the country with food stamps and free health care?
What Romney said next is harder to explain.
“These are people who pay no income tax,” he continued, “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.”
Let’s do away with the ridiculous myth that 47 percent of Americans are tax-evading moochers. Of the 46 percent of Americans who were expected to pay no federal income tax in 2011, more than 60 percent of them were working and contributing payroll taxes — which means they paid a higher effective tax rate on their income than Romney does — and an additional 20 percent were elderly. So more than 80 percent were either working or past retirement age.
Still, for my money, the worst of Romney’s comments were these: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
When he said this, Romney didn’t just write off half the country behind closed doors. He also confirmed the worst suspicions about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.
The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier.
That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream.
The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.
In their book “Poor Economics,” the poverty researchers Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo try to explain why the poor around the world so often make decisions that befuddle the rich.