Mother Jones recently posted a video that captures Romney talking to some Republican Party donors.

In response to a question Romney drew on a distinction that I’ve heard a number of people make. The future of the country is in the balance, this way of thinking argues, because nearly half the population are “takers” who don’t pay income taxes and are in some way dependent on government, while the other half are “makers” who produce and drive the economic engine forward. So, we are warned, the “takers” will overwhelm the “makers.”

I’ll leave analysis of the impact of this video on the campaign to the political handicappers. When it comes to the substance of this way of thinking, however, I find myself agreeing entirely with David Brooks’ column yesterday . Anyone who imagines that we can divide Americans in such a facile way doesn’t know much about our country.

In fact, I’m probably more exasperated by this way of thinking than Brooks, who is pretty exasperated.

Someone working in a meat processing plant in Omaha, Nebraska makes about $12 per hour. That’s $24,000 per year. Throw in some overtime, and maybe he makes close to $30,000. Now deduct the nearly 8% that goes to Social Security and Medicare taxes. Imagine that this guy is lucky and his employer provides health benefits, of which he pays some of the cost. He’s married with two small kids. His contribution is around $250 per month. Now his actual monthly take home pay is $2,050 each month. Rent is $800. Car insurance for one car is $100. According to the USDA, a very frugal family of four can survive on a food budget of $600 per month. They get their clothes, furniture, and appliances at Walmart, and with rigorous budgeting only spend $100 per month.

Okay, now our imaginary American who is working more than 40 hours a week at a physically taxing job has $400 per month that isn’t spoken for. He wants to be independent, so he forgeoes a cell phone and has no internet connect and no cable TV (which together might cost $200 per month). He never goes to Starbucks. He never has a beer after work with friends. His family never eats out. They take no vacations. But wait. His car, which is an old one that he prudently paid $2,000 for two years ago, breaks down. And one of his kids gets sick. And his wife needs monthly medication.The $400 evaporates quickly.

This imaginary family certainly pays no income tax, and they qualify for the earned income tax credit, as well as Section 8 housing and food stamps. Furthermore, without federal grants and subsidized loans, the kids would have no hope of a college education. They are in many ways profoundly dependent on government programs for their survival, to say nothing of any opportunity to advance.

So, to return to Romney’s crude comments, yes, they are “takers,” but it is absurd to say that they’re not also “makers.” More importantly, it’s an insult to suggest that someone working more than 2,000 hours per year at a necessary and unpleasant job is somehow mooching off the “producer class.”

The modern welfare and entitlement state is a mess. It is full of perverse incentives, and it may not be fiscally sustainable. But it’s historically, intellectually, and morally stultifying to imagine that this mess is somehow unnecessary, that it is the result of the laziness or irresponsibility of working people and the wicked plots of collectivist liberals.

Conservatives need to think about how to empower people who are struggling to stay in the middle class rather than to write them off as “moochers.”

See also: 

Anna Williams, Makers vs. Takers

Matthew Schmitz,   Stop Berating the “47 Percent”

Joseph Knippenberg,  Homo Sapiens and Homo Economicus

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