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Worry now or later

Thursday, September 27, 2012 - Updated: 8:09 PM

By LANE FILLER

Newsday

Mitt Romney's been assailed for his ugly comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income tax. And rightfully so: That group includes hardworking people, retirees, disabled military veterans and students. They don't have an entitlement mentality. Romney shouldn't have made the statement at a fundraiser, or even alone in the bathroom, pretending his comb was a microphone.

He shouldn't have even thought it: It's not true, and it's so cynical it made a swath of Americans queasier than a roller-coaster ride on a hot day after six corn dogs.

That being said, there are some people in that 47 percent with an entitlement mentality, who squeeze the nation for every penny and benny, and will never be productive. That will be so whether we elect Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or Mitt's new crush, Snooki.

Let's think about how such people come to be, and how they're going to keep on coming to be in the future.

Let's talk about Jimmy, an imaginary 5-year-old who just started kindergarten. Jimmy's family is poor and dysfunctional. He could be white or black; his mom and dad could be meth heads in a rural trailer or crack heads in an urban project. It does not matter.

Jimmy likely has a "listening vocabulary" of about 3,000 words. Children from high-income families are at about 20,000 words at this age. And the research shows that gap probably won't narrow: It mostly widens.

Jimmy, hours after kids in better-run homes are asleep, is still awake at 11 p.m., watching television or cowering from his loony parents and their party pals. If he is watching television, it's more likely to be "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" than any program educational enough to help close the gap.

He may just be awake because he's too hungry to sleep. Jimmy gets free breakfast (if anyone bothers to get him to school early) and free lunch, but his growing body has forgotten a noon meal by 11 p.m.

He's not going to be attentive in school tomorrow, or ever.

Nationally, 75 percent of high school students graduate, but Jimmy will attend one of the 1,500 high schools in America where 60 percent don't. He'll be part of that 60 percent.

For most of history, that still might not be a disaster. Until the past few decades, there were jobs, in the fields or factories or the military, that a hardworking, uneducated person could make a living at. That's less and less true. The uneducated will find few spots in the workforce of the future.

Romney said, "My job is not to worry about those people." But they are quite worrisome.

Society will, one way or the other, pay Jimmy's adult bills. You could say, "Let him starve," but humans aren't programmed to starve willingly. Before he'll do that, he'll rob and steal and hurt and kill (perhaps you, or your family). Then he'll be in prison, and he'll cost society at least $30,000 a year.

Alternatively, we could throw him $2,000 a month for an apartment, food, beer and a decent gaming system, which would be cheaper than jail and might keep him from killing your kids and stealing Grandma's silver.

Before he grows up, we have to do everything possible in the field of "Jimmy Prevention" -- and I'm talking laws and initiatives about school (all day, all year) attendance and parental behavior on a level that has never been seriously suggested in this country.

I don't honestly think any of this will work all that well, but I think we have a fiscal (and moral) obligation to try. The fewer failing Jimmys we have, the better. But I think we'll still have quite a few, no matter how hard we try to address issues of poverty and education. I know we'll have some. And there's no philosophy that will get us out of paying for them.

The political debate will only be whether the money goes to welfare, or to prisons.

LANE FILLER is a member

of the Newsday editorial board.

     

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