Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney drew widespread attention February 1 when he said he’s “not concerned about the very poor.”
Aired during a CNN interview, Romney’s statements were meant to define his target constituency: “I’m in this race for Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.”
The comments have drawn a backlash from leaders across Indian country, who know all too well about the poor – and who say the statements have made Romney look painfully out of touch.
“The comments by Romney merely demonstrate his total lack of touch with the poor, the working poor and the struggling middle class in America,” said Blaine Edmo, a council member for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes in Fort Hall, Idaho. He said the “safety net” doesn’t address long-term poverty.
“The problem with most of the programs that are supposed to assist the poor is they do not address their overall needs or the reasons why these people are in poverty,” he said: “lack of opportunity, limited education, no jobs that these folks could qualify for in trying to gain employment, limitations in training, no job skills, or alcohol and drug issues that need to be addressed.” He said people who do make it to alcohol and drug treatment programs “end up back in the same cycles because there are no ‘safety-nets’ existing in their communities to address the combined problems that most face on a daily basis.”
‘Safety Net’ a Bust
Donn Fire Thunder, a council member for the Oglala-Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, shared a similar reaction: “I would never elect him after hearing that,” he said. “This cat’s made all of his money overseas. He’s a very wealthy man today. They’re used to sitting down with $5,000, $6,000 supper dishes. The common person doesn’t make that in a month. We struggle.”
Fire Thunder should know. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation includes all of Shannon County, in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, which is almost always ranked as the poorest county in the United States. Out of a population of about 50,000 on his reservation, Fire Thunder says 86 percent – about 43,000 people – are unemployed. Many are living in old houses with insufficient insulation for winter, so an average family’s heating bills commonly approach $300 a month. Others are living in old, beaten-down trailers that developers gave to the tribe – rather than scrapping – when they wanted to make room for new buildings.
“Sometimes we have three or four families living in one house,” Fire Thunder said. “They’re glad to get these trailers. We try to Band-Aid them.” But for a family earning a few hundred dollars a month in Federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and trying to feed several children, even a home isn’t enough.
As part of his work on the council, he writes check after check to help cover tribal members’ electricity and propane bills, as well as their travel to Rapid City for the medical care that Indian Health Service is too often reticent to reimburse.
“It’s eating up our money,” he said. “It takes our resources away.”
Industry Better than Band-Aids
Fire Thunder said in the big picture, he’s actually not a fan of the “safety net” of social services Romney referenced: “They keep giving them only so much of the bone,” he complained. “They cripple the Indian by doing what they’re doing.”
Fire Thunder recognizes that his isn’t the only poor Indian nation. But believes some tribes have an easier time because they’re located near cities, where their people can find work.
“Around here, we’re isolated,” he said. “We’re sitting in the middle of the prairie.” And it’s a myth that the casinos are any help, he said: “I think all these casinos are in a hole. The only money they’re making is from people employed by the tribes.”
Fire Thunder wishes that instead of perpetuating handouts, the government would pave the way for industry to set up shop on the reservation, through tax breaks or other incentives.
“I think it’s time the government would help us by doing this,” he said. “People would feel proud, get up in the morning, have a job.” Fire Thunder has the idea to gather a coalition – maybe even an inter-tribal one, as he and Navajo Nation leaders have discussed – to go to Washington and pitch his idea, “get with some of these car companies, try to get them involved in the reservation.”
Education In Order
Shoshone-Bannock council member Lee Juan Tyler added, “Mitt Romney … needs to visit Indian country and listen to us, and other areas of this country as well.”
Tyler said his sister visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and saw sites that reminded her of poverty back home: “their shacks they called homes … living like we did here when we were growing up without electricity, running water, and all the necessities.” He said those are realities that rich or middle class people have never faced.
“We don't need anyone leading us who doesn't respect all classes of Americans,” he said. “If we don't help the poor then America will fail, and fall. This is a topic that the President really needs to address if America will stay a super power.”