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.

soundoff (458 Responses)
  1. Nuwan Samaranayake

    Mitt is so much out of touch with the reality of this country, he thinks only 5% is poor and we all know with this economy a lot more Americans falls into that catagory and any US president needs to be very concenred about it. Just thinking a safety net would take care of them is not good. There must be policies to deal with them. America should be scared to have a President that thinks like Mitt. He is lives in a different reality.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  2. Brian

    Very eye-openning article – Thank you Fareed! Anybody know what article he was citing? Wanted to go look at the info for myself. Thanks!

    February 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  3. Tex71

    As much as Romney and other conservatives would like to imagine that the poor don't matter, the fact remains that each poor American still has one vote, same as one rich American. Only there are a lot more poor Americans than rich ones. Not too bright, that comment about not being concerned about the very poor.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  4. shaun woody

    100% of people are the heart of america. It doesnt matter who is poor or rich. It sounds like a fame game to me. where is equality now a days i hate classification! WE ARE ALL EQUAL I DONT TRUST HIM!!

    February 13, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  5. Tc

    Many of those that are considered "poor" abuse the system and like the handouts. I see it daily. Kids that brag about their parents monthly checks and free food. If they really wanted to get out of the system, they'd pay attention in school and get an education to get them out of it.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  6. Topher

    America will always have more poor people than other smaller Western nations. We invite them. They risk their lives to get here. We must at least have a reputation in other nations for getting something somewhat right - despite the far right and far left.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  7. WacheAuf

    Good article. Good comments.

    There are other reasons to help the poor. Our own self interest. My analysis may need the help of an economist, but from what I see welfare to the poor has at least two important functions.

    The first function of providing money to the poor is that it is investment in our future. The immediate effects may not be so obvious, but if the poor are made outcasts they can easily be made to feel better about more rigid Marxists philosophies. Even a little capital may help them improve their lives. Oh, yes, there are some risks that many will become addicted to the welfare, but I see no data which shows that all become addicted. The poor that I have seen pull themselves out of the ghettos. The class of poor is a fungible class. The poor move in and out of it, just as, I am told, the rich at the top 1% is also a fungible class with people moving in and out of it.

    Second, money circulates constantly. The poor presumably spend their money at the K-Mart. (As you evaluate the money trail, please keep in mind that we are speaking of billions of dollars in circulation here.) The K-Mart managers take a part and spend their money at the accountant. The accountant spends a part of it at the Mercedes dealer. The Mercedes dealer takes his share and spends it at the hotel in Miami. The hotel in Miami spends it on the attorney. The attorney invests a part of it in Bain Capital. Bain invests a part of it in China. Of course, even that comes back to the US because China must spend its dollars somewhere. All of it finally comes back to the taxpayer who will keep that money in circulation ad infinitum.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  8. Green Jelly

    I don't like Zakaria 'cos he keeps saying that the US of A is not the absolute best in the world. And he keeps throwing statistics and numbers and facts. I don't like all of those. I like to live in the belief that the US of A is the absolute best in everything irrespective of any numbers or study or anything – then I can continue living my blissful and decadent lifestyle without a care in the world (while I wait for Jesus to come back).

    February 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
    • Vel

      Reminds me of Ostrich buring their heads into sand :-(

      February 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  9. Zane

    I really doubt any of Romney's rivals such as Gingrich, or Santorum care about the poor either. A vote for Santorum is a vote for the "most corrupt" senator of 2006. Yes, it is true, that is what the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have said.

    February 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  10. note2cnn

    . . . ZAKI never stops whining ... if you go back and read his archived columns, it's all the same whining ...
    . . . wa,wa,wa,wa,wa...

    February 13, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  11. John Brown

    Romney said he wants to create jobs but based on his history in Bain Capital? He fired hundred of thousands of people. That's what he likes the most! Firing people.

    Romney said he wants to build America but based on his investment in Cayman Islands? He believes in investing in foreign land.

    Romney said he can relate to American  people but he pays 14% tax while we pay 30% tax. Do the math: who is paying for that 16% tax credit? the poor!!!

    Romney said he is for middle class but not poor American since he does not care with poor American. I think he lives on his world.

    Romney.. Romney.. We dont need you! You just like Whitman. Your money can't buy my vote!

    You are not for poor people like me. Just like you said I just made $300k and that's not a lot!!

    Whatttt?? I never seen 10k in my whole life!! And you said 300k is not a lot? It's just a joke!

    February 13, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  12. sanjosemike

    The automatic, drop-kick reaction is that poverty can be solved by giving money away. Financial experts like Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, Clark Howard, and psychologists like Phil McGraw all agree that poverty is not fixed by giving more MONEY away.

    There are always people who find a way to survive and make money, even though they really don't have any more skills or education than YOU do. Take my daughter: She is a professional in high tech. On the side, she has two E-Bay businesses, does survery shopping for pay, sells dresses and items she makes herself on embroidery, sewing machines, gives lessons, tutors for cash and is the best bargain hunter I know. Even though it is not necessary, she also practice couponing.

    You could drop her off penniless in any US city tomorrow and within a week she would have some kind of a job, a steady income and a place to live, even OUTSIDE her profession.

    Giving money away is not the answer. Personal survival is a mindset. There are women raising 3 kids who have a pet grooming business in their basement and practice extreme couponing. Some of them have so much excess food and dry-goods that they have to give it away to charity because they don't have the room.


    February 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  13. Bill Lewis

    This is a test

    February 13, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  14. C. Sterling Portwood, Ph.D.

    I am a researcher in causal statistics and causal inference. My job is to look at statistics and research results and tell the unvarnished truth about what they say. It seems that the job of journalists, Fareed as a paragon, is to adopt a point of view, then look for facts and statistics which can be interpreted or misinterpreted (it seems to make no difference) to justify and support their a priori conclusion.

    A fair reading of Fareed's piece leads to the conclusion that it is propaganda designed to influence as opposed to a presentation of information and analysis designed to inform. Fareed, was there anything you saw that might contradict the conclusion that you are trying to lead your audience to? If there was, you neglected to mention it. In my experience, research results seldom line up so nicely and neatly, all leading in the same direction and toward the same conclusion.

    (continued in next post)

    February 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • C. Sterling Portwood, Ph.D.

      Taking just one example: Fareed stated, "Whatever the causes of poverty, when children grow up in desperate circumstances... 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." This seems like a statement that poverty causes these things, but technically it is not.

      Researchers are almost never able to inferred such causal connections and, if you read carefully, you should be able to see that Fareed has scrupulously avoided the overt claim that these associations are causal. The importance of this distinction is that, if poverty caused elevated levels of drug use or unemployment, these could be remedied or at least benefited by supplying money to the family. On the other hand, if the connections are only associative (i.e., correlative), making the family more wealthy would likely have little effect on the outcomes.


      February 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  15. C. Sterling Portwood, Ph.D.

    Researchers are almost never able to inferred such causal connections and, if you read carefully, you should be able to see that Fareed has scrupulously avoided the overt claim that these associations are causal. The importance of this distinction is that, if poverty caused elevated levels of drug use or unemployment, these could be remedied or at least benefited by supplying money to the family. On the other hand, if the connections are only associative (i.e., correlative), making the family more wealthy would likely have little effect on the outcomes.

    But what is Fareed's point here? He doesn't really state his conclusions. Rather, he artfully leaves it to listeners to jump to the unsupported and unproven conclusions that youthful poverty causes increased high school dropout rates, unemployment, drug use, having children out of wedlock, and illness later in life. Fareed did not lie to you directly and tell you that poverty has been shown by researchers to cause all of these ills. It appears that he simply led you to the edge and allowed you to jump, i.e., allowed your mind, which is by evolution predisposed to draw causal connections, to do the dirty work and lie to itself.


    February 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  16. C. Sterling Portwood, Ph.D.

    Is Fareed so intellectually challenged that he doesn't know that he is doing this or is he so smart that he knows exactly what he is doing and is artfully guiding his audience to accept a set of causal connections that no researcher has proven or inferred? I'm not really sure, but his presentation is crafted beautifully to present only true facts, while leading his listeners to draw invalid causal inferences. Nevertheless the erroneous causal inferences fit perfectly into the argument and conclusions that he wants to lead you through and to.

    In getting a deeper understanding of the issues involved here, it is important to know that 30-year-old research on identical twins raised apart has shown that the most important determinant (i.e., cause) of future human behavior is the person's genes; the second most important influence is the peer group he/she associates and identifies with; and the third most important causative factor in future human behavior is the parenting that the child receives. It is an interesting question how poverty would fit into these research findings, but one thing is sure. Fareed has made no real effort to analyze or sort out these complicated factors and their interactions, nor to understand or communicate real and/or meaningful policy implications.

    Nevertheless, it is possible to do a first cut analysis of these factors and determine something about Fareed's presentation and its validity. Poverty is the only possible causal variable mentioned, therefore it must be the cause, mustn't it? Never mind that in a child's life thousands of possible causal variables are encountered. Taking a genetic tack, because genes have been proven to be far and away the most important determinant of behavioral variables and also because there effects are more easily explained, maybe a child's parents possess genes that confer intelligence, but also genes that lead to laziness and lack of motivation. If the negative genes trumped the positive genes, those parents would likely be poor. Their children would likely inherit some genes for intelligence and some genes for diminished motivation, distractibility, proneness to addiction, etc. This could easily result in the offspring perpetuating the cycle of poverty, but because of the negative effect of these genes on his/her personality and choices, not because poverty itself caused his/her return to poverty.

    To be sure there is a correlation, an association, between poverty and these outcomes, but this association is what in the business we call a spurious correlation, meaning no direct causation between poverty and the outcomes. So changing the childhood condition from poverty to affluence would likely not affect later tendencies toward dropping out, toward unemployment, toward drug use, etc.

    Causal statistics and causal inference is still largely in the future for social sciences research, but, when these techniques do see widespread application, the causal connections among all of these and vastly more variables will be established. Then policymakers can utilize the then available large amount of causal information to design interventions which will improve the outcomes which Fareed speaks to, in addition to many others - a consummation devoutly to be wished.

    This may sound odd, but I have come to the conclusion, as a result of this analysis and discussion, that there are far too many journalists in the journalism profession and far too few scientists. As a result, I hear with offer my services to CNN as an analyst to counter half-baked propaganda, passing itself off as meaningful commentary and analysis. As an additional inducement, I would note that I don't particularly need money and I am not all Caucasian; I am part Indian, Chickasaw and Cherokee. In today's environment of affirmative action and ethnic diversity (balance?), that should count for something, not to mention that when I open my mouth usually (but not always) something insightful and meaningful comes out, an all too unusual occurrence in 24/7 journalism.

    February 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  17. EvilCon

    This article makes many assumptions (insert something witty here like "figures don't lie but liars figure") but I'm just going to focus on two.

    1) That the solution to poverty is more government and more government programs.

    We've tried this before with the "Great Society." How did that work out for us? All these government programs do whether they are welfare, medicare, housing assistance, etc is take money from some people and give to others in an unsustainable way. We end up with individuals that don't work, medical costs that balloon due to subsidizing overuse of medical resources, and people owning homes that they can't afford. As more and more people get on these programs we have to take more and more from less and less people (the rich).

    I have no problem with giving the poor a helping hand, but I will not subsidize their standard of living. There is a difference between helping somebody down on their luck and supporting them for the rest of their lives... please keep this distinction in mind.

    2) That this solution is what many European countries have in place and look how swimmingly things are going there!

    How those government programs in Greece working? OK a cheap shot but valid. Most of Europe has suffered through years of high un-employment but they had better equality OF OUTCOME. This system lasted because the global economy was great and there were enough productive people to carry everybody. That is obviously not the case now. We are seeing a retraction of government services that is only getting worse. I would also caution those readers that believe Europe is some paradise that has our high standard of living but for every single citizen. I actually have been to Europe and can testify this is not the case even in some western European countries.


    I argue that poverty can not be solved by government programs due to their sustainability. There has been and always be poorer people. Just as there will always be better looking people (models) compared to others (you know who you are). It is not equality of outcome we should worry about but the ability to move up (or down) economically through our abilities. The best way to achieve this is increase the ability to produce wealth something the US and the rest of the "West" have outlawed through our brilliant labor and environmental policies.

    February 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • mel4

      I agree with your post EvilCon. When the government gets involved it tends to create dependency in individuals and families, and that does not help the the individual, family, community, or nation. I think it is important to help those in true need of assistance, I'm not against that. I am against helping those who don't need it. My husband and I live below the poverty line, but we choose not to receive government assistance. We still live very comfortably. There are times when I wish we had more, but I know all in good time we can, as long as we plan and save. (We both graduated from college a year ago and know things will get better in time).

      Growing up I had seven siblings, and things were not always easy. We had good times and hard times. But my parents also decided to not live dependently on the government. We had food, and shelter, and when we saved we could go on fun family trips or do things we enjoyed. There was a family we knew that lived around us that did receive government assistance. They lived in a very nice house, and would go on vacation to Hawaii for weeks at a time. That doesn't seem right to me and that is what I do not agree with.

      As for Europe, I lived there for a couple years and I can also say that the average standard of living there does not compare with America's average standard of living. As for the high school drop out statistic, that is not completely accurate because in Germany you take a test before you go to high school. If you pass then you do get to go to a normal high school, if you don't well then not only do you not get to go to a normal high school you also can never go to college, you can't even apply to college and are stuck doing some technical job. In America everyone is allowed to go to high school, and apply and go to college.

      Although America has lots of problems, I still think it is a great country, with great opportunities. You just have to work for them.

      February 13, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  18. One wonders

    'peers to me that your campaign to re-elect Obama is in full swing. CNN sure hates Romney.

    February 14, 2012 at 2:28 am | Reply
  19. patod

    returned to the states in 1989 to find companies laying off hundreds of people (under Reagan) - got temp jobs because many companies had laid off employees. now, after bush put us into two wars (one totally unnecessary), lowered taxes and put the cost of these wars on a credit card with no way of paying for them, we now have a democrat in office who is expected to reverse the economy created by a republican - get a grip folks! YOU CANNOT LOWER TAXES AND STILL EXPECT TO PAY FOR TWO WARS PLUS KEEP THE ECONOMY GOING AT AN EVEN PACE. americans tend to want the cure to take overnight when it took so much time to get us into this mess. you would think i am a democrat, but i am not - much more independent - but, in this case, you need to look at the reason why the us economy is where it is. now you have a republican congress who, from the getgo has said they will do anything to make obama a one term president - is that the american way!?!?!? perhaps it has become that.

    February 15, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
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