Mitt Romney's ill-considered remark about the destitute, "I'm not concerned about the very poor," and his subsequent awkward explanation of it represented something more noteworthy than a rich man's gaffe. The question raised by the episode is not simply whether the candidate can articulate his views more clearly but whether the dire economic circumstances of tens of millions of Americans are truly understood, or can even be acknowledged, by the GOP.
"We have a social safety net," Mr. Romney told his CNN interviewer Wednesday. "If it needs a repair, I'll fix it." He went on to say he wasn't concerned about the "very rich" either and that he's focused on the "90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."
This was more than a mere casting aside of the poor (admittedly, not usually a particularly important voting bloc for Republican primary elections) but a humongous miscalculation of poverty. Say what you will about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, at least they were in the ballpark with their definition of the super-rich as representing just 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Mr. Romney's estimate of "90, 95 percent" not only implies that those helped by taxpayer-supported safety net programs are doing just great, thank you, but that he pegs the impoverished at something between 4 percent and 9 percent of the population. That's quite a distance from reality, particularly from someone who served as a governor and surely had to deal with these programs firsthand.
How many poor are there? That's an almost-impossible number to estimate because it's so difficult to define "poor." But even under the federal government's strictest definition, it's 15 percent of the nation, or 46.6 million people living at or below the poverty line.
And that's the most wildly optimistic view. Under the government's definition, a family of four must be living on $22,113 or less to be considered in poverty even in the priciest of communities. If one uses other, more realistic standards -- qualifying for the school lunch program, for instance -- the percentage is much higher. Among some groups of people, it's even worse: The poverty rate for African-Americans is slightly less than 30 percent.
Republicans are usually sensitive to defining people by class. Mr. Romney has proven himself quick to take offense when his wealth becomes a topic of conversation. He and others frequently accuse President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats of engaging in "class warfare" when they dare question the wisdom of preserving Bush-era tax cuts for the richest Americans.
Even Newt Gingrich recognized that income disparity is a losing topic of conversation for members of his party, quickly declaring that he was "fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other." He said he wants to be president of "all the American people" and was concerned about them all.
That's pretty remarkable stuff coming from someone who recently disparaged Mr. Obama as the "food stamp president" and suggested that child labor laws be relaxed so that poor children could be put to work as school janitors.
While it's stirring to hear that Mr. Gingrich stands ready to serve the poor, what's really needed is not less conversation about income disparity in this country but more. It is not "warfare" to recognize that economic hardships run on a continuum. There are poor and very poor but there are also working poor and middle class who sometimes need help from government as well.
After all, what are public universities, job training programs, enterprise zones and Medicare but taxpayer-subsidized help to promote good health, prosperity and job opportunities? They just don't come with the negative connotations of food stamps or other forms of public assistance.
It isn't "dependency" for the middle class to benefit from the programs that their tax dollars have financed. It is not un-American to question whether those earning many millions of dollars each year from investments should not have to pay taxes at a rate comparable to what average people see deducted from their more-meager weekly paychecks.
Nor is the "safety net" someplace where the poor are currently luxuriating while the middle class struggles. No matter how the differing circumstances of people living in the U.S. are accounted, we are all ultimately in this large boat together. And when an economic iceberg hits, we don't need a captain from first class to dismiss the plight of those in the lower decks.