I am a member of the 47% you referred to in the off the cuff remarks you made to a room full of donors earlier this year. When I say that, I mean that I am a member of the 47% of Americans who are going to vote for Obama. And, you’re right, there’s not much you can say or do to change that. I’m a social democrat, so unless you start saying things like “I think abortion should be legal and accessible to everyone,” or “I support gay marriage,” or “I believe in the value of a strong social safety net,” or “I think corporations and the wealthy should be taxed at higher rates,” you’re not getting my vote.
But I also used to be a member of the other 47% of Americans you referred to, the 47% who, for a variety of reasons, don’t pay federal income taxes. And I found your statement that members of the 47% can never be taught to take personal responsibility and care for their lives highly offensive. As you said those words, you reminded me of the countless ignoramuses I have encountered throughout the years who all seem to know somebody who has gamed the welfare system and then confessed said gaming to said ignoramus and that’s why “welfare ain’t right.” This attitude is ignorant, and misinformed, and demonizes America’s working poor.
Why does this bother me so much? Because my family was on and off welfare when I was a kid. We were on AFDC, and used food stamps. I got free lunch at the public school I attended, and my parents received medical aid so I could see a doctor. Were my parents a couple of unemployed loafers dependent on government handouts? No, they both worked, but their jobs bartending and waiting tables and cleaning bathrooms didn’t pay enough to make ends meet. After my parents divorced, my mom went to college, and she did so because she was able to get government grants and loans. And guess what? By the time I was in middle school, we were in the middle class! My mom got a job as a graphic designer. My dad got a job as a union carpenter. My step-dad was a union plumber. Both of my parents have paid back again and again any aid they received.
What about me? Did I turn into a dependent moocher unable to care for myself because my family received government assistance when I was a child? No. I may have worn second-hand clothes when I was in elementary school, but do you know what I could do better than all the girls in my class with perfectly matching, brand new outfits? Math. And reading. And writing. I excelled at school. I was motivated. Even as a child I made the connection between education and upward mobility. I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class. I went to the best college in the state of Wisconsin (this was what I could afford—my family was middle class, but we weren’t swimming in it). While there I decided I wanted to be a writer, so my next stop was the best writing program in the country, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for a MFA. Then I decided I wanted to get a PhD and become a college professor. I did both those things. I also published a book of poetry. I did all of this by the time I was 30. I was driven. I was motivated.
And that’s why I find your comments so offensive. The poor aren’t helpless and they aren’t the great Other; they’re normal people who have fallen on hard times. Shouldn’t we, the wealthiest nation in the world, help them out? Can we please stop demonizing them? They’re already poor; they have enough to worry about without being used as a prop on the national political stage. Governor Romney, I do think all Americans are entitled to food and housing and health care and “you name it.” I’ll name it. I also think all Americans should be entitled to a quality public education. I think all Americans should be entitled to free university education. I think they should be entitled to paid maternity and paternity leave. I think they should be entitled to unemployment benefits that support them as they search for new jobs, and social security that keeps pace with the cost of living for when they retire. I think they should be entitled to affordable childcare. I think all Americans are entitled to a government that supports them when they need help. How do I think we should pay for these things? I think we should all, you included (you especially?), pay higher taxes. But think of the benefits! Wouldn’t you pay higher taxes if you didn’t have to worry about saving for retirement, if you didn’t have to worry about saving for the astronomical price of college tuition for your children?
I say “you.” Of course “you,” Mitt Romney, don’t have to worry about these things. You were born rich. You’ve been rich all your life. You’ll die rich and leave your vast wealth to your heirs. I’m not one to generalize, but I’m beginning to wonder if being a member of the 1% makes a person incapable of empathy. I know this can’t be true. So, where’s your empathy, Mitt Romney?
Rebecca Lehmann is the author of Between the Crackups (Salt Modern Poets 2011). Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and many other journals. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and a PhD in creative writing and literary theory from Florida State University. She lives in Sherman, Texas with her husband, where she is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Austin College.