When I was 19, I lived in a furnished room on Manhattan's Upper West Side. My kitchen table was the bathtub with a cover over it. I had no shower, and the common toilet was down the hall, where some guy named Michael kept trying to get in. I was going to college at night, working in the mailroom of an insurance company by day, and taking home something like $48 a week. Given the rhetoric of recent days, this qualifies me for president of the United States.
I was what is sometimes called "voluntarily poor." I could have gone home to my parents, where a guest bedroom awaited. I probably could have hit up some relative for a short-term loan. What mattered most, however, was that I was in college. I would graduate someday, get a job, a wife, two-and-a-half kids, a split-level in the suburbs, and live the conventional American dream. I was not stuck. I was on my way.
Ann and Mitt Romney had similar days. In her speech to the Republican National Convention, Ann referred to those times of jolly penury: "We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know what? We just didn't care. We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining-room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. But those were the best days."
Oh, what fun to be poor!
Of course, Mitt was the son of an auto company CEO who became governor of Michigan and Ann had gone to the tony Kingswood School (since merged with Cranbrook) where the present-day tuition is $28,300 for day students and $38,900 for boarders. They were both rich — if not in great wealth, then in promise. They were, in fact, living on the American Motors Corporation stock Mitt's father, George Romney, had given them.
The theme of Ann Romney's speech — "We are like you" — resonates through U.S. politics. It was sounded at the conventions not just by Ann Romney but also by Joe Biden, Chris Christie, and Michelle Obama. They all either disinterred impoverished ancestors or harked back to their own days of voluntary poverty. Michelle Obama recalled that Barack used to pick her up "in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by in a hole in the passenger-side door." Of course, the couple in that car had both graduated from Harvard Law School, but Barack Obama forsook a lucrative law career and plunged into community organization.
Mitt Romney, in contrast, plunged into finance. So the onus was on Ann Romney to show that Mitt could connect. She swung and she missed. Poverty is not about bookcases made of planks and bricks but about utter hopelessness. The poor do not have affluent parents. The poor do not have college degrees. The poor often do not even have high school degrees. The poor often don't have a man in the house or, to be perfectly frank, sometimes the discipline and work habits to lift themselves out of poverty.
The United States now is busy shrinking its middle class. The homes of millions of people have been plunged underwater. Jobs have been offshored and unions have been weakened so that wages are lower, hours longer, and job security a virtual oxymoron. What is it like to be 50 and suddenly out of work? What is it like to send out your 100th or 500th résumé? What is it like to spend your savings on long-term medical care so that you get reduced to poverty?
Not for a second did I think that Ann Romney got it. This has nothing to do with wealth. After all, the Kennedys were rich. So were the Roosevelts. Someone who appreciated the plight of the poor would not have trivialized it with campy stories from her "let's pretend" past. The challenge is not the isolated person who has fallen on hard times and who Mitt and Ann have helped — I applaud that — but the utterly impoverished, the erstwhile homeowner, the financially precarious old, and those who have flunked out of the middle class. They too have stories about eating off an ironing board and stuffing themselves with pasta and tuna fish. Only it's not about the past but about the present and, worse, the future.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.