Sharkara Peters is a 35-year-old single mother of two. She works 34 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant. A few months back, she was hospitalized with a blood clot in her lung. Then, one of her daughters needed surgery. As a result, Peters lost about three weeks of work, and could not muster her $335 monthly rent. When I met her last month while in Charlotte, N.C., reporting on poverty on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, she was facing eviction.
I asked Peters what President Barack Obama should do for people in her economic situation and she answered without hesitation. Obama, she said, needs to do something about girls on welfare that just sit up and have baby after baby and never try to better themselves.
You see, nobody likes freeloaders.
The point is made for the benefit of Mitt Romney. Of course, he'd likely consider Peters herself a freeloader. I've not seen her W-2, but it seems a safe bet that, working less than full time for fast-food wages, she doesn't pay much if anything in federal income taxes. Romney was heard last month in a secretly recorded video disparaging the 47 percent of Americans -- low income earners like Peters, Social Security recipients and others -- that he says pay no taxes.
Speaking before a room full of well-heeled donors in Boca Raton, Fla., who had paid $50,000 a plate for some face time with him, the Republican presidential nominee described those non-taxpayers with contempt as people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. ..."
In the video, posted online by the liberal magazine Mother Jones, Romney says it'd be a waste of time pitching his campaign to those moochers: "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Peters does not need Romney's lectures about personal responsibility.
Nor does George Farmer, 61, who became homeless when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and could no longer drive his truck. Nor does Michelle, an unemployed appliance repair technician trying to raise four girls on $694 a month plus food stamps. Nor do most of the invisible poor, the cashiers and servers, floor moppers and burger flippers whose annual income probably wouldn't cover maintenance on one of Romney's car elevators.
If the gaffe concretizes the caricature of an out-of-touch rich guy, a cognac-swilling peer of Thurston Howell III, Charles Emerson Winchester and Montgomery Burns, it's important to remember that Romney is hardly alone in his sentiments. No, he spoke against a backdrop of vitriol against the have-nots in our society. They are called animals by Ann Coulter, takers by Michelle Malkin, accused of laziness by Rush Limbaugh. Fox "News" person Charles Payne laments the "entitlement mentality" under which they fail to even be properly "embarrassed" by their poverty.
For the record, I gave you no surname for Michelle, the single mother referenced above, precisely because she was too embarrassed to let me use it.
Romney's remarks, then, are of a piece with a narrative -- poverty as character defect -- favored by many who know exactly jack about the reality of poverty, but who have discovered that demonizing the faceless poor, giving us someone new to resent and blame, is good politics. They wrap their attacks in rags of righteousness and pretensions of pragmatism, but there is something viscerally wrong, morally shrunken, in a nation where the most fortunate are encouraged to treat the least fortunate as some enemy race.
So the big story here is not about what damage Romney did to his campaign. Yes, the fact that he used condemnation of the poor as a lever of political advantage shames him.
But the very fact that the lever exists shames us all.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Contact him at 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.