Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, fresh off an important primary victory in Florida, found himself quickly in damage-control mode Wednesday after the multimillionaire candidate said he's "not concerned about the very poor."
Mr. Romney's full comment, made in a CNN interview, emphasized his concern for the difficulties faced by ordinary working Americans.
"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 percent of Americans who right now are struggling," Romney said.
Later, the former private-equity executive reiterated that "my energy is going to be devoted to helping middle-income people."
Still, the "not concerned" comment lands Romney in some hot water with many of the voters he would face if nominated by Republicans to run against President Obama this fall. Already, one of Romney's prime tasks is to persuade voters he understands them and doesn't live in a separate world of the ultrarich.
The remark also raises a question: Which groups of Americans are really "struggling" the most now?
Political analysts and economists could slice and dice the electorate in various ways to explore the answers, but here's a look based on the parameter Romney himself mentioned: income.
Last fall, a Gallup survey asked Americans to rate their own personal finances. In that poll, 47 percent of all respondents with incomes of less than $30,000 rated their own finances as "poor." That was a much larger share than for other income groups. About 16 percent of those with income between $30,000 and $75,000 rated their finances poor. And 3 percent of those with incomes above $75,000 called their financial position poor.
Similarly, Americans in the lower-income group in Gallup's October poll were much less likely to say their finances were getting better (26 percent said that). And while large numbers in the other income groups said their finances were worsening, the below-$30,000 group was the only one with an outright majority (60 percent) in that camp.
The poll is one indicator that Romney may be on thin ground asserting that it's especially middle-income Americans who are struggling.
Census data also point in that direction. In the most recent annual report on incomes and poverty, the Census Bureau found that poverty rose in the US between 2009 and 2010, with 46.2 million people classified as poor (a rise of more than 2.5 million people).
In all, 15.1 percent of Americans are classified as poor, or about 1 in 7.
This doesn't mean Romney's remark is without any grounding in reality.
It's true that there's plenty of financial discontent among middle-income Americans. Obama has deployed a task force on that issue, seeking answers to everything from college debts to challenges saving for retirement and paying for health care.
And it's also the case that America does have a significant array of safety net programs. Romney mentioned food stamps, Medicaid, and housing vouchers. The list could go on, including disability insurance, unemployment insurance, and the earned income tax credit.
"My first thought was: hey, I’m glad he recognizes the existence of and need for the safety net," former Obama administration economist Jared Bernstein wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "My second thought was … um … he’s gonna shred it" through his proposed spending restraint.
With Romney in the news for the gargantuan investment-earnings on his tax return, the candidate's comment appears likely to linger as fodder for critics in a possible general-election campaign.