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January 03, 2012 4:45 PM Romney’s odd definition of ‘middle class’

By Steve Benen

I have a hunch as the campaign progresses, we’ll be hearing this quote again.

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For those who can’t watch clips online, Mitt Romney was on MSNBC this morning, and fielded a question from Tom Brokaw about whether Romney expects to deal with rising poverty if he’s elected president. The Republican replied:

“Well, I want to make sure we have a safety net to care for those that are poor, but I want to get those who are poor into the middle class.

“My ambition is to make sure that we start creating jobs again in this country and that we have rising median incomes, as opposed to the 10% decline we’ve seen in the last four years.

“To get people back into work, get higher incomes, and let people have a middle-income life standard they had in the past. That’s the whole effort that I’m involved in.

“Somebody who’s fallen from the middle class to poverty, in my opinion is still middle class.”

Putting aside the fact that it’s fundamentally dishonest to blame President Obama for falling median wages during the Bush era, I’m just not sure what Romney means when he defines “middle class.” As he sees it, even if someone falls into poverty, he or she is still middle class? In what universe does that make sense?

No wonder Romney thinks he, despite having a quarter-billion in the bank, is part of the middle class — this guy is so far out of touch, he no longer even understands what middle class even means.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • DAY on January 03, 2012 4:51 PM:

    "Middle Class", by Mitts definition is:
    Married, with kids, God fearing, church going, white, have a house with a mortgage, a job, and an adorable pooch that accompanies the family on vacations.

    help me out, gulag- what did I miss. . .

  • golack on January 03, 2012 4:52 PM:

    With the poor treated as pariah in the GOP, you have to separate out the hard working middle class real Americans from those lazy bum deserve to be poor people....

    Of course the economic and educational policies of the POG's end up pushing more people into poverty and being "middle class" ain't what it used to be...

    I know, let's blame Obama!!!

  • Peter C on January 03, 2012 4:53 PM:

    I think Romney means 'Middle Caste' and not 'Middle Class'.

  • John T. on January 03, 2012 4:53 PM:

    Sounds like he was trying to say that somebody who's fallen from the middle class to poverty can still become middle class again. That his goal as President would be to bring these people back.

  • ahoy polloi on January 03, 2012 4:58 PM:

    there we have it. finally a GOP candidate who comes out and says that the poor are fundamentally different (read: inferior) to the rest of the country.

  • anandine on January 03, 2012 4:59 PM:

    All four of the comments on as I write this are correct. Mitt thinks someone who dips into poverty from middle class is still middle class, because it's a class thing, not just an income thing.

    By the same token, someone who rises from lower classs to middle class is still lower class.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on January 03, 2012 4:59 PM:

    In what universe does that make sense?
    Steve , Steve , Steve You crack me up.
    Why in the Faux NOOZE universe .
    Inside that bubble anything is possible.
    Donald Trump can be taken seriously .
    Rick Santorum and Michele Bachman are credible candidates.
    Up is down .
    Watch for a few hours , you will learn new things to be afraid of.

  • Measure for Measure on January 03, 2012 5:02 PM:

    It makes sense in this universe. Think of a college student from a middle class family. His income is low but his prospects are middle class. Think of a newly divorced mother of two with a college education. Her income may be within the bottom quintile, but potential skills are middle class.

    Most people who have received food stamps have done so only temporarily.

    Benen's body slams are generally on target, but I think he slipped up on this subpoint.

  • jb on January 03, 2012 5:05 PM:

    Public: "Help! I've fallen into poverty and I can't get up!"
    Romney: "I am on it! Bigger tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminate the capital gains tax entirely. Oh, and the Death Tax has to go too ... Economics is so easy if you are not a socialist!"

  • c u n d gulag on January 03, 2012 5:08 PM:

    DAY,
    You forgot "and votes Republican to make sure they stay that way," of course.

    And I'm sure Mitt will be happy to tell you his middle class bona fides - he takes his dog on vacations the same way everybody else does - strapped to roof.

    And when he was a kid, he did chores - like chilled his Daddy's caviar, boiled his lobsters, and broiled his filet mignon's.

    I mean, how much more middle class can a guy get?

  • joejoejoe on January 03, 2012 5:10 PM:

    As much as Romney is out of touch, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama weren't much better in 2008. IIRC Clinton defined the high end of middle class at $250,000 and Obama defined it at $100,000. While in office, President Obama has used Hillary Clinton's definition when it comes to taxing the wealthy.

    If you define "middle class" as the middle 60% of household income, the range is from roughly $25,000 to $85,000 a year. That's a huge range and people making $75K a year live very different lives than people making $30K but Romney, Clinton, and Obama (and just about every politician) continue to use a mythical definition of middle class instead of any objective standard that includes the middle of anything.

  • Marko on January 03, 2012 5:19 PM:

    Romney talks about the 10% decline of the middle class over the last 4 years. That is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The middle class has been declining for decades, but he wants to pin it all squarely on Obama?

    When you see the Republican party busting up unions, restricting voting rights, causing massive deficits, giving away tax cuts to the rich, fighting against middle class tax cuts; do you really think any Republican gives a rat's ass about the middle class?

    Romney is a liar and a fraud.

  • latts on January 03, 2012 5:22 PM:

    He means the cultural middle class, not the economic middle class, as others have noted. Republicans flatter the non-wealthy, reassuring them of their moral and societal superiority even as their economic standing becomes more fragile. That's how they keep all those rural whites in the fold-- they may not be rich, but they're still better than those libruls!

    By those standards, I must qualify as 'elite,' because my liberalism/education/social circles tend to put me in contact with academics, world travelers, etc., plus I'm unmoved by the churchy moralizing. Apparently the elite income is on a separate rider.

  • chi res on January 03, 2012 5:24 PM:

    By the same token, someone who rises from lower classs to middle class is still lower class.

    Well, there haven't been enough lately to tell. But I'd say it's really only true if they're non-white.

  • Peter C on January 03, 2012 5:30 PM:

    Joejoejoe points out the ambiguity of what exactly 'Middle Class' means. That's one reason we should drop it as a frame and use the 99% instead. Most Americans realize that they are NOT in the 1% despite their aspirations and background. Republican policies have all greatly benefitted the 1% and royally screwed the 99%. Mittens (who's spent his life in the 1%) will make it worse. These things are all easy to understand.

    'The 99%' is a really good frame for us. Let's use it!

  • Lolly on January 03, 2012 5:30 PM:

    I don't think I would define "middle class" as the middle 60% at this point.

    Technically, of course, that's the definition, but the concept of "middle class" would be the group of people who can afford the basic necessities (food, clothing, permanent, safe,comfortable shelter, basic consumer goods like cars, major appliances, etc.)

    In L.A. or New York, 25-50K wouldn't cut it; it might fit into "working class," which I see as marginally middle class.

    250K on the coasts is definitely not poor, definitely not working class, but it's not really rich. More like Upper Middle Class.

  • N.Wells on January 03, 2012 5:53 PM:

    "Somebody who's fallen from the middle class to poverty, in my opinion is still middle class."

    Possible translation: even if a white person loses their income, they are still white.

  • jomo on January 03, 2012 6:00 PM:

    It's clear what he means that people who have fallen out of the middle class into poverty are still middle class. He means that they are not "ghetto people".

  • buddy66 on January 03, 2012 6:00 PM:

    I've never seen a definition of middle class that makes sense. Middle as between which extremes? Neither rich nor poor? That's wishy-washy enough to maybe satisfy our class anxieties, but it's a term that was created by capitalism's running dogs, sociologists and economists, to make us feel better about being wage slaves and cowards. Try missing a few paychecks and we end up sleeping under bridges and whining that we're really middle class -- ''Really, officer...''

  • Christiaan on January 03, 2012 6:08 PM:

    Middle class is anyone who's not rich. (That is, anyone who's not a job creator, like Mitt.) Poor people are either welfare queens or criminals, or both. Therefore we can logically conclude that anyone who is working in an honest job and not rich must necessarily be middle class, even when they fall into poverty. (Falling into poverty is not the same thing as becoming poor, being poor is a choice.) Understood?

  • joejoejoe on January 03, 2012 6:21 PM:

    @lolly - $250,000 on the coasts is rich, full stop.

    The highest median income in the United States for a community over 10,000 is Scarsdale, NY with a median income of $193,157 (via Wikipedia). So $250K puts you 25% higher than average in the wealthiest community in the United States. The median household income in NYC and LA are actualy lower than the median household income for the US as a whole. The whole "it's different on the coasts" argument is garbage.

  • g on January 03, 2012 6:24 PM:

    He means "white."

  • Laurie on January 03, 2012 6:38 PM:

    I can't believe it but I sort of get what Mitt was saying and sort of agree. My school did a staff training about the work of Ruby Payne and understanding poverty. There is a culture of poverty and of middle class (that is not race based) If I lost my job and had to live on min. wage I would still feel and conduct myself according to middle class cultural values of which I have lived for 50 years. I won't say more because a couple hours of training makes me no expert.

  • Barbara Smith on January 03, 2012 6:42 PM:

    Not one thing Mitt Romney says makes one bit of sense. He is so inconsistent that his words have no meaning for me. Sure politicians change course, but he doubles down on his inconsistencies, offering no clear reasons for changing position.

    In addition, he tells lies about Obama and his Republican opponents that he knows are lies and he just does not care.

    He is blatantly unethical, a liar, and untrustworthy. How can he possibly be the Republican frontrunner?

    I cannot believe that Huntsman and Pawlenty could not make inroads. I would much prefer either of them to the nightmare than Romney is.

  • cmdicely on January 03, 2012 6:52 PM:

    I’m just not sure what Romney means when he defines “middle class.” As he sees it, even if someone falls into poverty, he or she is still middle class? In what universe does that make sense?

    In the universe in which socioeconomic class exists separately from and is less malleable than present economic circumstances (or, more succinctly, in "the reality".)

    There is, though, a kind of "polite fiction" that the U.S. doesn't have real socioeconomic classes because it has perfect fluidity with no barriers to socioeconomic mobility and that all uses of the language of class in reference to U.S. society are using class-oriented language as a way of describing present, and possibly quite transitory, economic circumstances. Its somewhat odd that Romney would reject that polite fiction, but then maybe you have to if you are trying to sell your policies as at once helpful to the temporarily-impoverished members of the (largely white) middle classes while at the same time making it quite clear to those same people that you aren't interested in doing anything for the (largely non-white) victims of generational rather than transitory poverty.

  • Daryl McCullough on January 03, 2012 7:46 PM:

    I think it's obvious what he means. He's defining the classes, not in terms of how much money they happen to have, but in terms of values and culture. By this definition, a huge swath of Americans, from those barely making ends meet to those with million dollar per year salaries, are all considered "middle class". The only people that don't count as middle class are the snooty rich who have butlers and chauffeurs, and those bums who are too lazy to get a job.

  • tomb on January 03, 2012 7:52 PM:

    I think what Romney meant to say was "middle caste." And if you were born into the middle caste, then you can't fall from this status just because you lose your money - just as someone from the lower caste can't increase his status with money. People need to know where they belong, he would want to say.

  • Tom Marney on January 03, 2012 8:00 PM:

    Nobody says "working class" anymore.

    This is the smartest thing I've ever heard Romney say. Cynical and sneaky as hell, but smart.

    It's like the "ownership society" under Dubya. Own a few shares of stock and suddenly your interests are at one with those of the 1%.

    Also, not that many years ago, Time Magazine (IIRC) ran a poll which indicated that 20% of Americans believe themselves to be in the top 1% of earners. Republican commentators reacted with delight.

  • N.Wells on January 03, 2012 8:35 PM:

    I think Daryl is basically right, but cmdicely gives the best translation of the dog whistle.

  • Skip on January 03, 2012 11:14 PM:

    "Somebody who's fallen from the middle class to poverty, in my opinion is still middle class."

    So to paraphrase, if Romney lost his fortune, and dropped into middle class, his golfing buddies at the club he can no longer afford would still hold the opinion that he was rich?

  • fakeplasticpete on January 04, 2012 12:02 AM:

    I'd have to say the "Middle Caste" vs. "Middle Class" analyses nail it, spot on. I've had some bewildering conversations with my conservative friends, back in the day, that made no sense until I understood that fact.

    To that mindset, Welfare people are on Welfare because they are "those people". Even in the depths of the economic crisis, I was told that people seeking aid from charities "knew how to work the system" despite the reports of record charity requests and unemployment.

    As most have expressed here, "Middle Class" is not an economic situation, it's a social status.

  • FrederickRLynch on January 04, 2012 3:03 PM:

    "Salvaging the middle class" is going to be a huge theme in the 2012 elections--and it should be. But it will also force some sort of common benchmarks of how to measure and talk about "middle class." Pew Research Center has some great survey data on this. If we're talking "households" as opposed to "individuals" it usually refers to having a household income at or near the median, at least "some colege," skilled blue collar or white collar occupation, home ownership. Marriage is also implied, though that institution is breaking down below middle-class levels. Historically, a long-cherished characteristic has been job and income security and stability--now available mainly in the public sector.

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