Mitt Romney's comment Wednesday about the social safety net has already been boiled down to a quick shorthand: "I'm not concerned about the very poor." It adds to a growing collection of statements that fuel charges that he has, if nothing else, a very tin ear and is an out-of-touch member of the .01 percent.
In a CNN interview with Soledad O'Brien, Romney said in part:
"By the way, I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling. I'll continue to take that message across the nation."
While Romney obviously is attempting to appeal to many Republican and independent voters who are 1) middle class, and 2) less likely to be concerned about poverty than many Democrats, according to polls, his statement is already causing much Internet buzz.
The remark comes after he was forced to reveal his bounteous 2010 and 2011 income and relatively low tax rates. And Newt Gingrich and other rivals for the GOP presidential nomination have already attacked Romney for allegedly hurting workers as Bain Capital's chieftain. That makes Romney's new comment surefire fodder for Democrats.
It's a safe $10,000 bet that it will likely figure in numerous Democratic ads when the race between Romney and President Obama is finally joined — if Romney continues on to be the Republican nominee.
But in classic Romney fashion, he immediately hedged his statement by saying that if there were holes in the safety net, he would fix them. So he is concerned about the very poor, after all, only conditionally.
The Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, whose expertise on poverty issues is widely respected, indicates that there are definitely holes in the safety net — and says that the recession and modest recovery have blown open the holes even larger.
An excerpt from a recent report:
Thirty states have General Assistance programs, which generally serve very poor individuals who do not have minor children, are not disabled enough to qualify for the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI), and are not elderly. ... Only 12 of these states, however, provide any benefits to childless adults who do not have some disability; the others require recipients to be unemployable, generally due to a physical or mental condition.
The benefits that these programs provide are extremely modest. In 29 of the 30 states with General Assistance programs, the maximum benefit is below half of the poverty line for an individual. In fact, in most of these states, the maximum benefit falls below one-quarter of the poverty line.
Romney's comment was so unusual that CNN's O'Brien asked a follow-up to make sure she understood him correctly. That also gave Romney a chance to revise his remarks if he wanted to.
O'BRIEN: "All right. I know I said last question, but I've got to ask you. You just said, 'I'm not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net.' And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say, 'That sounds odd.' Can you explain that?"
ROMNEY: "Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I'm not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat(ic) Party, the plight of the poor. And there's no question, it's not good being poor. And we have a safety net to help those that are very poor.
"But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. My campaign — you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich, that's not my focus; you can focus on the very poor — that's not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans, retirees living on Social Security, people who can't find work, folks that have kids that are getting ready to go to college.
"These are the people who have been most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net. And we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers. We have programs to help the poor. But the middle-income Americans, they're the folks that are really struggling right now, and they need someone who can help get this economy going for them."
By suggesting that voters would hear about the "plight of the poor" from Democrats and that he would be focused on the middle class, Romney seemed to be ruling out the idea that an administration could be concerned with both the middle class and the very poor.
Or maybe his message was that improving the circumstances of the very poor can only come at the expense of the middle class.
Whatever. In any event, it's clear that as far as the Democrats are concerned, Romney is the gift that keeps giving. Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, tweeted:
So much for "we're all in this together." Romney today: "I'm not concerned about the very poor"