February 12th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Mitt, you need to worry about the very poor

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Remember Mitt Romney's infamous "poor" comment? If not, here it is again:

"I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich; they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95% of Americans who right now are struggling."

Well, it got me thinking: Romney was actually being honest about Americans in general. We don't - none of us - spend much time thinking about the very poor.

But we should, because we have a real problem in this area, an economic, political and moral problem.

By Romney's calculations, if 95% of Americans fall in the middle class, then there must be less than 5% of Americans who qualify as poor.

Well, no.

The number from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the association of the world's developed economies, is actually 17.3%.

And how do we compare with other rich countries?

We rank 31st of the 34 countries that make up the OECD in terms of the percentage of our population that qualifies as poor. Of the 34 member states, only Mexico, Chile and Israel are worse off than we are. The UK (at 11%), Germany (8.9%) and France (7.2%) are all much lower. The OECD average is 11%.

In case you're wondering how the OECD defines poverty, it calculates the number as the percentage of people who earn less than half of the country's median wage. It's an easy way to compare data across countries.

In the video above, look at the chart that shows the percentage of children in poverty. At 20.6%, we again come off far worse than other rich countries.

Japan, Australia, the UK, Germany and France all have much better numbers.

Romney spoke about how he would fix the safety net for poor people "if it needs repair.”

Let me suggest one place to fix things: end child poverty.

Whatever the causes of poverty, when children grow up in desperate circumstances - circumstances that they had no role in creating - studies show that they will be more likely to drop out of high school, be unemployed, use drugs, have children out of wedlock and get ill.

In other words, they will be unproductive members of society and cost taxpayers huge amounts of money over the course of their lives.

We know that we have an education problem with the poor. Seventy-seven percent of our kids who entered high school graduated. Compare that with other rich countries: 90% in Switzerland, 91% in the UK, 93% in Finland and 97% in Germany. Studies show that dropouts are twice as likely to slip into poverty than high school graduates.

Children in extreme poverty do badly even when they are smart. A recent U.S. study tracked a group of eighth-graders in 1988. It found that students who did very well on a standardized test but were poor were less likely to get through college than their peers who tested poorly but were well-off.

Look at health care. A key indicator of the level of health in a country is its infant mortality rate; that's when a child dies within the first year of life. Let's compare again. We're at about six deaths for every 1,000 live births.

Again, the UK, Australia, Germany, France and Japan all fare much better. Japan's rate is less than half ours. This is simply because many mothers don't have access to prenatal care. Malnutrition and poor childhood health care set in motion a lifetime of poor health - and huge costs to the system.

On indicator after indicator, the U.S. compares badly with other rich nations on not only how impoverished it is but on the facilities and opportunities it is giving the poor. That's why social mobility has stalled in America. Compared with other rich countries, poor Americans are more likely to stay poor. More than 40% of American men whose fathers had earnings in the bottom fifth end up in the same bracket. Britain, Denmark, Finland and Norway all perform much better.

The sad part is, these statistics are reversible. Compare child poverty rates in America and the UK. You'll see that the UK's rates were halved within a decade from the mid-1990s. The U.S. has actually risen since then.

There's no secret sauce. Tony Blair's Labour government simply made reducing child poverty a priority through various programs.

So, Romney: Yes, the media took your comments out of context. But you do need to be concerned about the very poor. We all do.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.

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