Scott Winship on the Real Romney Gaffe

While we’ve all heard about Romney’s comments about poor Americans and the safety net, most observers missed the fact that the Republican presidential candidate also suggested that 90 to 95 percent of Americans are struggling. Scott Winship addresses that claim at The New Republic. He also offers the following very sensible set of observations:

As I have argued in the pages of National Review, the U.S. is singularly ineffective at lifting poor children into the middle class as adults (poor boys, actually—we are as effective as other nations at lifting up poor girls). If you are reading this, chances are good that you are in the top two-fifths of the income distribution or can expect to be there at age forty. Just 17 percent of kids raised in the bottom fifth will make it there. Based on historical patterns, your own kids will have a 60 percent chance of doing so if they start out in the top two fifths.

Here the concern of conservatives about complacent satisfaction with the safety net—Romney’s included—is relevant. Our safety nets might simultaneously lift the poor out of destitution yet discourage the upward mobility of poor children. They may provide a floor but impose a ceiling, through inefficient incentives related to work, marriage, and saving. Furthermore, much of the left does not want to confront the important issues of family instability, criminality, and personal responsibility in limiting life chances.

At the same time, much of the right is reluctant to acknowledge the role of luck in determining one’s economic fate. Many conservatives are too ready to accept inequalities in adulthood that reflect decisions kids’ parents made and the decisions of kids themselves during the notorious period of irrationality that we call “adolescence.” We need more conservatives willing to experiment—using federal dollars—to figure out how to get more poor kids the greater skills that are prerequisites to economic independence and comfort in today’s economy.

Whether politicians ignore the poor and pander to the middle class or scare the middle class into thinking they are as bad off as the poor, the result is likely to be the same. Most of our policies will continue to be mis-targeted, as analyses by the Pew Economic Mobility Project and CFED have demonstrated.

One hopes that Newt Gingrich’s contribution to conservative discourse is the notion that the safety net should be “a trampoline,” or a springboard to economic progress. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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