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Romney's plan would shred safety net for poor

By Karen Dolan, Special to CNN
updated 7:20 AM EST, Fri February 3, 2012
Mitt Romney's gaffes show either a lack of understanding of Americans' plight or a cynical political calculation, says Karen Dolan.
Mitt Romney's gaffes show either a lack of understanding of Americans' plight or a cynical political calculation, says Karen Dolan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Karen Dolan: Mitt Romney's remark that he's "not concerned about very poor" was telling
  • She says it's classic Romney: out-of-touch, scripted to pander to middle-class voters
  • She says Romney's plans show safety-net programs would be cut in his administration
  • Dolan: Romney should be concerned about nearly 14% of Americans in poverty

Editor's note: Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank, is studying alternative metrics to the gross domestic product, such as Maryland's Genuine Progress Indicator. She is the policy director of a new economic hardship initiative spearheaded by best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich that will tell the stories of the millions of Americans battered by the Great Recession.

(CNN) -- "I'm not concerned about the very poor." Oops. Mitt Romney messed up. Again. This was a bigger "oops moment" for Romney than when he said a few weeks ago that the $374,327 he earned in speakers' fees over the course of 12 months amounted to "not very much." It was bigger than "I like being able to fire people." It was the biggest since he blurted out that corporations are people, my friend" at the Iowa State Fair.

Call it a Freudian slip, call it overconfidence emerging from a big win in the Florida Republican primary, call it a classic, out-of-touch-sounding "Rich Romney" gaffe. It may be all of those things, but this comment represents a scripted piece of the Romney campaign strategy. He hopes to co-opt an Obama campaign message aimed at appealing to the middle-class voters each will need in the general election.

Karen Dolan
Karen Dolan

Did his inept remark reflect a poor understanding of this position except as an election strategy? One has reason to wonder. Whether it's policies that affect poor Americans, women, immigrants or the nation's ever-shrinking middle class, one gets the uneasy feeling that the positions Romney recites are crafted for political gain rather than from a sense of conviction about what is good or bad for this country.

Why? On abortion, for example, the former Massachusetts governor supported the right to choose and a greater role for government in helping spread access to health care -- which won him votes in that liberal state. But he shed those positions when they would prevent him from attracting conservative Republicans on a national stage. He has famously and repeatedly done similar turnabouts, most recently when he faced Florida's Latino primary voters with a kinder, gentler version of his previously anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Romney taking heat for "poor" comments

Romney: 'I misspoke' about poor
Romney: Poor have safety net
Romney battles out-of-touch image
Romney taking heat for 'poor' comments

Of course, a conservative political candidate trying to both woo a big-government-averse base and appeal to general-election moderates would focus on the middle class. We may even understand when particularly cynical politicians tune their strategies toward higher-income Americans, who tend to vote in greater numbers than lower-income folks. But what is far more puzzling is the reason Romney gave CNN's Soledad O'Brien for what sounded very much like callous disregard for the poorest Americans. "I'm not concerned about the very poor," he said. "We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it."

Actually, if you look at Romney's policy agenda, you will see that "fixing it" could not be further from his plan, unless it's doublespeak for "eviscerating it." Romney calls for immediate across-the-board cuts in nonsecurity discretionary spending. That would mean slashing the budget for many of the programs that comprise our safety net, by 5%, according to his spending proposal. These cuts would come on top of the 17% cut already affected by this summer's Budget Control Act.

Romney: Middle-income Americans are focus, not very poor

Further, according to analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, his proposals to cap total spending at 20% of gross domestic product, along with increasing already bloated military spending, cutting taxes and pursuing a balanced budget, would necessitate enormous cuts to vital programs. "The cuts would measure 21% in 2016 and 36% in 2021," the center said. "If policymakers exempted Social Security from the cuts and then cut all other nondefense programs by the same percentage, the cuts would rise to 30% in 2016 and 54% in 2021."

Funding could all be gutted that helps low-income students afford college with Pell grants, enables low-income women and their children to eat a more nutritious diet, covers the cost of the highly successful Head Start early-education program and pays for job training, housing assistance and veterans' health care.

In short, Romney's plan would incinerate the very safety net that he claims to be his excuse for expressing no interest in addressing the needs of the "very poor." Oh, and how poor are the poorest 5% or 10% of Americans he seemed to be referring to, exactly? Even the census, which tracks household income for all Americans, doesn't say with precision, although it does note that households with annual income of $15,000 or less made up 13.7% of our population in 2010. I don't know about you, but I'm concerned about them.

If Romney's lack of concern about the very poor came with a real plan indeed to fix a tattered safety net so that poverty rates could begin to decrease, he might be less vulnerable to the charge of being out of touch with voters. But as long as his gaffes and policy prescriptions continue to belie either a lack of understanding of the economic plight of Americans or a cynical political calculation that both ignores and will exacerbate that plight, Romney will go the way of his fellow "oops"-prone 2012 presidential candidate.

When he joins the ranks of the also-rans, don't worry about him. Given that his net worth is somewhere between $85 million and $264 million, if anyone in America has a "very ample" safety net to fall back on, it's Mitt Romney.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Karen Dolan.

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