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GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney committed a major blunder that has gone viral all across the country. In a moment of candor he told a very exclusive audience (of mostly some of the infamous one percenters and perhaps a few wanabees) that There are 47 percent of the [American] people who will vote for the president no matter what.…there are 47 percent who are with whom, who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.…That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. These are people who pay no income tax. 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of lower taxes doesn’t connect…my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them to take personal responsibility and care for their lives…” 

Since then numerous commentators have discussed this issue. Jonathan Chait, for instance, pulls no punches when he writes that: Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (“I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.”) 

Kevin Roose chimes in with this: Well, for starters, it’s not accurate to say that 47 percent of Americans pay no taxes at all. Most people pay state taxes, local taxes, and property taxes. Almost all pay sales tax, and most pay payroll. According to the TPC [Tax Policy Center], only 18.1 percent of American households paid zero or negative federal income tax and zero or negative federal payroll tax in 2011.” 

Many are retired people living mostly off social security or a small amount of savings and so they do not make enough money to have to pay federal income taxes each year. Many are those who work at such low wages that they don’t have to pay income taxes. Some are the disabled. And some are no doubt veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who don’t earn enough money or who are disabled because of the wounds they suffered. Even the conservative David Books was upset and wrote this in the New York Times: This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?” William Kristof, writing in the New York Times, asks What about the underpaid kindergarten teacher in an inner-city school? What about young police officers and firefighters? What about social workers struggling to help abused children?” 

David Horsey, writing in the Los Angeles Times, notes that the 47% includes the working poor, the newly unemployed, handicapped people, the elderly, veterans, 4,000 millionaires and the nation’s greatest icon, the American cowboy.” Yes, that is correct, cowboys who earn about $25,000 per year on average. Hardly a group that would be characterized as slackers” feeding off the nanny state! 

How does this relate to juvenile justice? To see this all you need do is visit any juvenile detention center or training school. For the most part these are the kids of the 47%, especially those who work for poverty wages or who live in the projects and receive a stingy welfare stipend, or whose fathers have been out of work for months or even years, thanks largely to the decline of the manufacturing sector during the past 30 or so years. 

Then there is the growth in inequality in recent decades. As Paul Street writes: During the nation’s weak expansion between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 percent (3 million people) received fully two-thirds of the nation’s income growth. The other 99 percent got one-third of the gains to divide among 310 million people. It got worse after the Great Recession, itself very much a result of the nation’s extreme economic inequality (see below). The top 1 percent garnered no less than 93 percent of the nation’s gains during 2010, the first full year of technical economic recovery.” 

Meanwhile, according to the Census Bureau, roughly half of the population is either officially poor or low-income earners.

It should come as no surprise that there is a direct link between these horrible conditions and the suffering of growing numbers of children living in poverty. More than one fifth (23%) of all American children live in poverty according to the Annie Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book.” The rate is even higher if we consider race: 39% of black children and 34% of Hispanic children live in poverty. We see these kids every day somewhere in the juvenile justice system.