Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney to College Students: Drop Dead

How long will we have to wait before we get a story about Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign that doesn’t contain the word “attacks”?

The past two weeks have cemented Romney’s reputation as an attacker. Look at who he is attacking now: college students.

Most college students have low incomes, with either low wages or no wages at all. Well, let’s face it, most college students live in poverty, almost like refugees. They have no proper place to live, just a bed and a desk. They are forced to subsist on institutional food that is not always above the standards of fast food. But they do it for a reason: to gain knowledge, skills, and a educational certificate (often a diploma) that may qualify them for specific jobs.

College students work harder than almost anyone in the United States. They certainly work harder than candidate Romney, who at a glance, obviously doesn’t have a midterm in the morning to worry about.

And so it is startling to see Romney castigate the majority of college students, grouped together with Wall Street billionaires and the various other miscellaneous groups of people whose taxable income is too low for them to pay federal income taxes. In a secret speech delivered to financial supporters in May, but which Romney reaffirmed in comments yesterday, he suggested that everyone who doesn’t pay federal income taxes in any given year is a lazy freeloader living off of the government. It is an astonishingly harsh indictment of the people who, as a group, are working harder, taking more risk and responsibility, and looking farther into the future than anyone else, but it gets worse. College students are dead to Romney. In his opinion, they will never become contributing members of society:

[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

To be fair, the “47 percent of the people” who don’t pay income taxes is a broad group that includes more than just college students. The largest segment of people who don’t pay federal income tax is retirees. Romney surely intended to direct his ire mainly at retirees, particularly with the lines that refer to people “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care . . .” But he said nothing to exclude students from his remarks, and some of what he said seems to be directed more toward students than anyone else.

In any case, it makes sense to think of students as the core group of the “47 percent.” Hardly anyone really means to retire with an income so low that they are exempt from federal income tax. That’s something that happens to people as a result of ill health and other misfortune, employers’ mandatory retirement rules, and plans that go astray. Similarly, no one chooses to be among the ranks of the long-term unemployed. There are subsistence farmers, but not many, and that too is usually a desperate choice in a context where good jobs are unavailable (and proper farming equipment is out of reach). Similarly, there are business owners whose businesses lose money in a given year, but businesses are carried on for the years that are profitable. There are single parents whose living expenses are high enough that even with a full-time minimum-wage job they do not owe income taxes, but who really chooses to be a single parent? People do voluntarily choose to be high school students for a year or two after they pass the legal dropout age, but high school is is seen as civic responsibility in a way that college is not.

But people do voluntarily choose, by the tens of millions, to be full-time college students, in spite of the hard work and sacrifices required, and even if it means accepting financial support from others. So the “47 percent” is fundamentally about college students if it is about anyone at all.

This, of course, is not the first time that Romney has alluded to his low regard for students, but it is the most emphatically dismissive he has been since he became a candidate. I worry that students, who know all too well what their income and total taxes owed were the last time they filled out a form 1040, may hear Romney’s comments and worry that their country does not value or honor their efforts. And this is not just a casual or moral concern. There is so much pressure on college students already, hearing a presidential candidate tell them to drop dead could have bad consequences. I hope that today or in the coming days, a prominent public figure can make a statement to counter Romney’s attack. This cannot come from Romney himself, who since the convention seems to have become an attack specialist. Perhaps a statement in support of college students could come from Dr. Jill Biden, who has a special interest in college education. Or, perhaps everyone who cares about education and students should say something, in the hope that a chorus of support for college students will drown out Romney’s vitriol.

For my part, I can say that I know from personal experience how hard college students work, and I consider it unfair how much is expected of them. I know I regularly caution people not to take on excessive financial risk to get a college education, but for anyone who is already in college, my advice is this: give it everything you have, learn whatever you can, and cheerfully accept whatever financial support you can get for now, as if the future of the world depends on it — because, in a sense, it does.