Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is taking much deserved flack for the leaked video of him professing—at a $50,000 a plate fundraiser—utter disdain for the less fortunate half of the population. The tax policy issues at stake have been well covered: my colleague Ethan Pollack and Ezra Klein both have graphical dissections of who the 47 percent of households are and why they do not earn enough to owe federal income tax liability, and Ruth Marcus poses four poignant questions deserving answers from the Romney camp on the tax policy implications of his remarks. I’ve explained in the past why this misleading conservative grievance is a red herring. And as Rob Reich points out, Romney’s remarks incoherently conflate the 47 percent not paying income taxes with “entitled” recipients of government programs, ignoring that “entitlements”—Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment insurance—are funded by payroll taxes. But there’s a much broader point than the tax policy issues being hashed out in the blogosphere and op-ed pages: Romney’s prior comments, budget proposals, and selection of running mate all suggest the same antipathy toward the poor and the middle class.
Romney landed himself in hot water last February when he shrugged off the plight of the poor alongside the fortune of the wealthy: “I’m not concerned about the very poor—we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. … We have a very ample safety net … we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers…” After widespread backlash for these remarks, Romney clarified what he meant: “My focus is on middle income Americans. We do have a safety net for the very poor and I said if there are holes in it, I want to correct that.” So how would his budget “repair” the safety net? Well, Romney’s economic and budgetary plan—not just his dismissal of nearly half the population— belies any concern for the poor and the safety net. His budget would:
- Block grant and deflate Medicaid and cut the Children’s Health Insurance Program, slashing spending on health care for poor children, poor seniors, and the disabled by $1.4 trillion over a decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities;
- Immediately cut non-security discretionary spending another 5 percent, decreasing funding for low-income programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, child nutrition programs, low-income housing, and Head Start, among others;
- Cut and cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP (while increasing base spending by the Department of Defense to 4 percent of GDP, thus cutting the rest of the budget to 16 percent of GDP from 19.4 percent today), thereby requiring a 40 percent across-the-board cut to everything except for Social Security and DoD by the end of the decade;
- Cut 13 million households from food stamp (SNAP) rolls or cut SNAP benefits for a household of four by $1,800 annually—or some combination of the two—again according to CBPP. SNAP effectively kept 3.9 million Americans out of poverty in 2011;1
- End the Recovery Act expansions of the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, thereby raising taxes on average for households making less than $30,000 (while cutting taxes on average for those earning more). The EITC effectively kept 5.7 million Americans out of poverty last year.1
There’s something seriously wrong with Romney’s professed evenhanded nonchalance toward both the rich and the poor, and it’s not just that Romney’s income in 2010 was over 1500 times the poverty threshold. (Mitt and Ann Romney earned an average of $59,346 a day, more than four times the $14,218 poverty threshold for a household of two, and roughly $11,500 more than the median annual earnings of a male working full time.) Romney’s budget actually goes to great lengths to cut taxes for millionaires while simultaneously raising taxes on the working poor. If you read the Census Bureau’s 2011 income and poverty report, it’s abundantly clear that the safety net is in desperate need of repair; if you’ve read Romney’s budget plan, you know the safety net would be shredded.
And then there’s the question of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose budget would book 62 percent of its $5.3 trillion in nondefense spending cuts from programs for lower-income households, according to CBPP. Ryan’s budget would repeal the Affordable Care Act and halve Medicaid over a decade, increasing the number of uninsured Americans by between 44 million and 57 million, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the regressive distributional impact of Ryan’s proposed tax cuts for upper-income households and tax increases on lower-income households is nearly identical to that of Romney’s. As I’ve explained before, the Romney-Ryan budget agenda would spell disaster for the middle class.
Romney’s comments are shocking more because of their impolitic sincerity than the socioeconomic philosophy they reveal; his contempt for lower– and middle-income Americans has been apparent in his remarks, policy proposals, and campaign management for quite some time.
1. These measures show how many people now below the poverty line would be above the poverty line if SNAP and the EITC were counted in the Census definition of money income used to calculate the poverty rate.