In a less-examined portion of the recently revealed remarks Mitt Romney made during a private fundraiser in May, the presidential candidate told donors that "95 percent of life is set up for you if you're born in this country."
Romney told the donors there are people who say to him, " 'Oh, you were born with a silver spoon,' you know, 'You never had to earn anything,' and so forth. And, and frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America. I'll tell ya, there is -- 95 percent of life is set up for you if you're born in this country."
Romney delivered his comments in the context of a story he told about observing miserable labor conditions in a Chinese factory he had visited.
If 95 percent of life is set up in this country, however, it certainly doesn't reach 95 percent of the people. The U.S. poverty rate has hovered at or near 15 percent for the past few years. Moreover, the same 15 percent of the population is not constantly poor. In fact, recent research suggests that only 15 percent of Americans will not experience some type of economic insecurity in their lives.
Fully 85 percent of Americans by age 60 will have experienced unemployment, sharply lower income, poverty or the use of welfare for at least a year of their adult lives, according to a 2012 longitudinal analysis by Mark R. Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. For black people born in America, life is even less set up.
Whites by age 60 were 43 percent less likely than blacks to have been poor and 42 percent more likely to have experienced affluence, according to Rank.
Rank examined social mobility in the U.S. and the likelihood that Americans would face economic fortune or misfortune. His research shows that a large percentage of Americans are poor at some point in their lives and that safety net programs don't eliminate the sting.
Romney's reference to the 95 percent "set up" sheds further light on his attitude toward the 47 percent of Americans he said don't take personal responsibility and care for themselves.
"There are 47 percent who are with [President Barack Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it," Romney said at the same fundraiser. "And so my job is not to worry about those people -- I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
If Romney believes, as he said, that "95 percent of life is set up for you if you're born in this country," then people who fail to become successful have only themselves to blame, which helps explain why Romney feels he'll never be able to redeem such people. He said in February that he is "not concerned about the very poor" because the government's social programs take care of them.
But the safety net is porous.
By age 30, Rank's research shows, more than 35 percent of Americans have experienced at least one year of poverty or near-poverty, and 11.2 percent have been poor for three or more consecutive years -- not including any time spent poor as children. Nearly a quarter have experienced a 50 percent drop in household income. Yet only 27.3 percent have availed themselves of a safety net program, with just 16.8 percent using such a program for two years or more.
By age 60, more than 54 percent of Americans have been poor for at least a year, with 22.2 percent poor for at least three consecutive years. Nearly two-thirds have experienced a 50 percent drop in household income. Forty-four percent have used a safety net program of some kind, while 28.4 percent have used the safety net for two years or more.
On the brighter side, 76.8 percent of Americans by age 60 will have experienced at least one year earning $100,000 or more, either alone or combined with a spouse, with slightly more than half earning six figures for at least five years.
Despite the United States' famed economic mobility, many Europeans have it better. Among American families in which the father's earnings put him in the bottom 20 percent of incomes, 42.2 percent of the sons remain in the bottom fifth as adults, while only 7.9 percent make it to the top fifth. For sons raised in the top 20 percent, 36 percent stay in the top fifth as adults, while fewer than 10 percent sink to the bottom, according to Rank's research. By comparison, in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, a lower percentage of sons raised in poor families stay poor, and a greater percentage become rich.
Romney's life fits the pattern identified by Rank. He was born to a wealthy and powerful family. While his father was governor of Michigan, the son attended an elite boarding school. His father also paid for his undergraduate education and his graduate study at Harvard Business School. His father then bought the younger Romney’s a beautiful house in Massachusetts, lending them $42,000 in the 1970s. "We stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money. As I said, Mitt's very bright," Ann Romney noted in 1994.
The way Ann Romney has described her family's early years also helps to explain why Mitt Romney thinks it's easy to succeed in America. She apparently believes that all her husband's advantages don't count in judging his success -- he still made it on his own. "Mitt will be the first to tell you that he is the most fortunate man in the world. He had two loving parents who gave him strong values and taught him the value of work. He had the chance to get the education his father never had. But as his partner on this amazing journey, I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success," she told the Republican National Convention.
Mitt Romney believes the same thing. "By the way, both my dad and Ann's dad did quite well in their life, but when they came to the end of their lives and, and passed along inheritances to Ann and to me, we both decided to give it all away. So I had inherited nothing. Everything that Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work," he told the gathering of wealthy donors in May.
The Romneys have described their early years as ones of real hardship, hardship they overcame through hard work -- and income from stocks.
"They were not easy years. You have to understand, I was raised in a lovely neighborhood, as was Mitt, and at [Brigham Young University], we moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income ... Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time," Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994. "We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge, not entertaining."
Perhaps most interesting, however, is that in crediting 95 percent of an American's success to the country in which he or she was born, Mitt Romney was saying that something else was responsible for that success. In other words, if you've got a business, you didn't build that.