Poverty as a character defect? In defense of the 47 percent
Sharkara Peters is a 35-year-old single mother of two. She works 34 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant. A few months back, she was hospitalized with a blood clot in her lung. Then, one of her daughters needed surgery. As a result, Peters lost about three weeks of work, and could not muster her $335 monthly rent. When I met her last month while in Charlotte reporting on poverty on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, she was facing eviction. I asked Peters what President Obama should do for people in her economic situation, and she answered without hesitation. Obama, she said, needs to do something about girls on welfare who just sit up and have baby after baby and never try to better themselves. You see, nobody likes freeloaders. The point is made for the benefit of Mitt Romney. Of course, he'd likely consider Peters herself a freeloader. I've not seen her W-2, but it seems a safe bet that, working less than full time for fast-food wages, she doesn't pay much if anything in federal income taxes. Romney was heard recently in a secretly recorded video disparaging the 47 percent of Americans — low-income earners such as Peters, Social Security recipients and others — who he says pay no taxes. If the gaffe concretizes the caricature of an out-of-touch rich guy, a cognac-swilling peer of Thurston Howell III, Charles Emerson Winchester and Charles Montgomery Burns, it's important to remember that Romney is hardly alone in his sentiments. No, he spoke against a backdrop of vitriol against the have-nots in our society. They are called animals by Ann Coulter, takers by Michelle Malkin, accused of laziness by Rush Limbaugh. Fox "News" person Charles Payne laments the "entitlement mentality" under which they fail to even be properly "embarrassed" by their poverty.Romney's remarks, then, are of a piece with a narrative — poverty as character defect — favored by many who know exactly jack about the reality of poverty, but who have discovered that demonizing the faceless poor, giving us someone new to resent and blame, is good politics. They wrap their attacks in rags of righteousness and pretensions of pragmatism, but there is something viscerally wrong, morally shrunken, in a nation where the most fortunate are encouraged to treat the least fortunate as some enemy race. So the big story here is not about what damage Romney did to his campaign. Yes, the fact that he used condemnation of the poor as a lever of political advantage shames him. But the very fact that the lever exists shames us all.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.