The schoolboy next to me had cool clothes and perfect Brylcreem hair; he was our Mitt Romney. My wardrobe made people stare; generations of alterations on hand-me-down jeans passed for stretch marks. He wore a few layers of IZODS and Penny Loafers with dimes in their tongues.
He had his own IRA. I only had my Buck Creek DNA.
He spent a day at Purdue's Co-op for an extra-credit project on agriculture. I interviewed my Uncle Buck about his 150 fighting roosters.
He claimed to be a philatelist and collected stamps. We used stamps to buy food, and S&H stamps from Bel Air cigarette packages to acquire kitchen utensils.
His family of four ate breakfast at Frisch's Big Boy. I was the oldest of four boys and shared my cereal's milk with them or one of my four sisters.
Yeah, the Mitt Romney in my neighborhood seemed to have it all.
He bought roses for a girl on Valentine's Day. I had already handed the same girl a drawing of flowers. He got the date while I fished with my grandpa using night crawlers coached out of the ground with hot soapy water.
At 16, he picked up dates in his dad's new Riviera. I showed up wearing a half helmet on a Rupp mini bike my dad had won in a poker game. I could have passed for Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes.
He could outline Disneyland's streets and key rides. I could locate the local Salvation Army's shoe section with my eyes closed. My only trip out of Buck Creek, Indiana was to pick the strawberry fields in Michigan (and was told it was our vacation).
He stepped out of his mom's Suburban each morning. I filed off the big stub-nosed bus; my mom had no driver's license.
Yeah, our Mitt Romney didn't appear to have any worries.
His paved driveway was flanked by an awkward little man statue with a black face holding a lantern. I had a dirt driveway that went through Sugar Creek and disappeared into the woods. We used lanterns for gigging large bank catfish that escaped my uncle's grasp while noodling.
His dad owned a business that usually did well. Mine was a mechanic at a Sinclair station before trying carpentry and seasonal unemployment.
He attended a SAT prep-class during the summer before his junior year. I didn't know SATs existed, but that summer did catch and sell over 1,000 crayfish to local bait shops.
His basketball was leather. Mine was slick plastic and looked more like an anemic bowling ball without holes. He had his own lined court. I had a net-less rim on a neighbor's security light pole with a packed dirt floor.
He had a Texas Instrument SR-52 calculator the size of my metal lunchbox. I shared a Mannheim slide rule.
He and his dad shot clay skeet at the range. We shot beer cans near my uncle's hand-painted aqua blue camper (home) down by the river.
It wasn't that their Mitt Romney lifestyles were better or worse than ours – just different. For the most part, they were unaware of the depth of our poverty. That was unfortunate, but nothing sinister. And they often hired my dad or an uncle for work, from fixing mowers to remodeling rentals. I'm not sure how many taxes they paid, but am aware that someone must have paid for those stamps that occasionally bought our food, sponsored the Christmas parties for us "special" kids, and donated our baseball and football fields sporting local business signs on the fences.
The press is filled with demeaning talk of Mitt Romney's wealth, and somehow chastises him for paying "only" $1.9 million in taxes last year. The truth is, Mitt Romney's taxes paid for the 174 people to live a full year on welfare – based on the poverty level of $10,890 in 2011 (according to the poverty guidelines of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). In a sense, he made it possible for people like me as a child to survive. Or in another category, his money covered the expenses of 63 impoverished families of six (at $29,990). That's 378 people!
At the core of the poverty index's formation is the notion that one-third of an impoverished person's income is used for food. One could further accent Mitt Romney's contribution to the disenfranchised by noting that Mitt's taxes fed 1,134 people last year – people in families like mine in childhood. I think we should applaud anyone paying "only" $1.9 million in taxes.
President and First Lady Obama paid around $162,000 in federal taxes. If we subject it to the same formula, they supported 5.4 families – or 32 people (or 346 fewer than Mitt and Ann Romney). Still, their taxes equal the minimum amount of 32 people at the high end of the poverty matrix. However, there's a striking difference that makes this gap even wider from Mitt; instead of supporting others with these taxes, consider that $400,000 of the Obamas' combined salary ($789,674) is taken from the taxpayers (the presidential salary), leaving a deficit of $238,000 from available taxes to help the poor.
Or in simple speak – the Obama's $280,000 from taxes (president's salary minus taxes paid) actually took funds that could have helped eight impoverished families, or 47 people. Mitt Romney's taxes supported 378 people. And the gap of Romney helping the poor goes even further. Because of his financial success, he and Ann also gave $4,020,772 to charities (29.4% of their income). The Obama's gave $172,130 (21.8%), which is also noble. However, Vice President Biden only gave $5,540 (only 1.5%), and only an average of $369 on average over ten years. Most of us give considerably more than that in tips annually.
The President of the United States should be paid well (especially in the light of what many NCAA coaches make). However, to criticize Romney for "only" paying $1.9 million in taxes and as not caring for the poor is rather disingenuous. That's what is implied by demanding more taxes of him.
This reality evokes no smiles. Imagine going to 47 impoverished people and share – we'd like to help you, but we have to pay the President. Or, going to 378 people and share – this year we were able to give you public assistance, but next year we'll have to pull that back because Mitt Romney decided not to make as much money and to prevent paying "only" $1.9 million. I think Ayn Rand would smile. No need to ask in this scenario "Who is John Galt?" It's obvious.
There's no easy way to determine the actual amount a family can glean from "major-means tested" programs (government assistance for the poor). The Department of Health and Human Services has at least sixteen such programs, ranging from Low Income Energy Assistance Program. The Department of Agriculture has at six major programs, including SNAP (formerly Food Stamp Program), and another six departments administer another six major initiatives.
However, there is a way to determine if a person is generating more income than others, or tapping their resources. Or, if a person gives a higher or lower percentage of income to charity.
When PBS sent a crew to film the remains of our Buck Creek home, I was reminded anew that the Mitt Romneys and Obamas of this world had helped me to succeed. Some through their own financial success and generosity, and some through lifetimes of trying to leverage the financial success and taxes of others. And the stark truth that the latter approach is only possible with the former success of creators, innovators, and sound thinkers.
The film (via the WIPB affiliate) is entitled "Leading the Way out of Poverty," and captures an amazing aspect of five different families. However, a common thread is that at some point we all had to take ownership of our personal situation, and we couldn't borrow that intrinsic drive from another's success or taxes. And, several were creators, inventors, and leaders. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart finally realizes a profound answer to the mysterious question, "Who is John Galt?" It applies to this election. "We are!"
Jerry Pattengale is executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative. He also serves as Assistant Provost for Public Engagement at Indiana Wesleyan University and is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, and a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute, a regional policy think tank, a research associate at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and a Research Scholar at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.