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Poor? What poor? U.S. politics play to middle class

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 2, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
February 2, 2012 5:04 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Mitt Romney doesn’t care about “the very poor”? He’s not alone.

Romney’s point – as he hurried to emphasize Wednesday after his awkward phrase popped out on CNN – was that the poorest Americans have a safety net while middle-class Americans are “struggling.”

His real sin was saying out loud what campaign strategists from both parties know: In American politics, it’s all about the middle. That’s true for the nation. By and large, it’s true for Washington state.

The middle class is where the votes are. People who want to win elections know that pandering to the broad socioeconomic center is how it’s done. Republicans tend to favor tax cuts; Democrats tend to want to sweeten entitlements for middle-income Americans. The poor can be an afterthought, if that.

The Republican Party since its inception has looked out for business and the financial sector. Fine: A free and dynamic economy needs champions of investment and private job-creation. Jobs – the best antidote to poverty – are byproducts of business expansion.

But many Americans get left behind, including people with disabilities and children who grow up in scary places with few opportunities. Too often, their problems are simply not on the conservative radar screen.

In the Republican primaries, one of the chief lines of attack on Romney himself is that he helped extend health insurance to the working poor in Massachusetts through government mandates. But conservative alternatives – such as medical savings accounts – tend not to do much for the poor. If you don’t have money to save, and your employer can’t or won’t help, an MSA isn’t worth much.

The poor are a secondary priority for many Democrats as well.

Perhaps the best thing governments could do for the disadvantaged is overhaul failing and mediocre public school systems from top to bottom. In some places – Washington among them – this would involve challenging powerful unions that fight nearly all attempts to hold schools and educators accountable for results.

President Barack Obama, to his credit, has labored to shake up the nation’s schools. We don’t see a phalanx of Democrats doing the same in Olympia.

Environmentalists – like teachers unions, a huge Democratic constituency – can also seem blissfully indifferent to the ways some of their policies would hurt those of modest incomes. Aggressive “green” regulations that make energy more expensive, for example, could empty the pockets of struggling Americans who must heat their homes, drive beaters to work and feed their families with meager paychecks.

America’s safety net is overrated: It’s truly tough to subsist on low wages in this country. Anyone proposing a big new regulation ought to account for its effects on the poor. The same goes for any politician promising more government largess for the middle class.

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