People We Still Care About

Like many pundits this week, David Frum notes the obvious problem with Romney’s 47% statistic. While technically accurate, it doesn’t explain that most of the non-taxpayers he dismisses as useless are retired elderly on Social Security — not non-white freeloaders:

Only about one-fifth of taxpayers are non-elderly people who pay no tax at all, and they are paying no tax mostly because they are unemployed in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, a crisis that candidate Romney blames on the president and promises to correct. It seems a hard saying to call these promised beneficiaries of a Romney recovery people who don’t take responsibility for their lives.

Frum gets the image exactly right:

So when a politician or a broadcaster talks about 47% in “dependency,” the image that swims into many white voters’ minds is not their mother in Florida, her Social Security untaxed, receiving Medicare benefits vastly greater than her lifetime tax contributions; it is not their uncle, laid off after 30 years and now too old to start over. No, the image that comes into mind is minorities on welfare.

As a percentage of their population, minorities are more likely to be on welfare but 3 out of 10 recipients of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) are white. In 2012, Whites made up 72% of the population, Blacks made up about 12%, and Hispanics made up 16%. In 2000, Whites represented 31.2%, Blacks 38.6% and Hispanics 25.0% of TANF recipients. By 2010, Whites increased only slightly to 31.8%, Blacks dropped to 31.9% and Hispanics increased to 30.0% of TANF recipients. Of course, Black unemployment is approximately twice that of white, and even higher among the younger workers.

Even though I live in Baltimore, which is about two-thirds black, my anecdotal image of Romney’s people-who-don’t-pay-taxes skews white.

I ride light rail to work, so I see a lot of black people going to and from work. At the Hamburg station I am frequently the only white face on the platform. Last week, in the PM, I saw a young white couple waiting there ahead of me. The woman was initially attractive in a high school cheerleader way, with long blonde hair, but as I glanced at her, I was puzzled at how she looked back at me and seemed interested in what she saw. On light rail, it is more common for young women to studiously ignore a man’s gaze.

I turned towards the track in my usual waiting and looking down the track posture. A minute or two later she left her friend and came towards me, and I suddenly realized. She asked if I had any money for the light rail ticket. Mystery solved. I looked prosperous enough to be a target. I’ve been asked for money a lot, and it is usually a young white man, although there was one persistent old black wino that used to hang around Federal Hill a few years ago.

I have family back in Altoona, which is one of the top ten whitest cities according to a recent list. Many of them have friends addicted to meth, or oxycontin, or even good old alcohol. My wife used to donate her grandson’s old clothing to one young mother she knew from a job. I met her once, and though I found her pretty, I thought it odd that her face looked older than her body. Meth. She was clean while she was working, but I don’t know what happened after she was laid off. She has kids from two or three fathers, and the latest one is in and out of jail due to his substance abuse problems. Once he was nabbed grabbing drugs off the shelves of a drugstore.

We also know a young mother who has lost her job due to alcoholism. It is heartbreaking to hear and watch her child try to grow up in that situation, turning to junk food and so desperate for attention that she breaks household items.

I think back to reading The Working Poor. As Shipler noted, many of these dependent people do make bad decisions that contribute to their situations. Nevertheless we do still care about them.


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