Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum will no doubt deny that they endorse a caste system. They will insist that they love the plain folks and will enthusiastically point to their family histories as they compete for blue collar credentials. Rick Santorum, spiffy in his sweater vest, will tell you about his granddaddy who worked the coal mines. And Mitt Romney, decked out in his everyman's jeans, will describe how his daddy, when he was training to be a carpenter before he was governor of Michigan and later a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, could spit out nails, point first. But a hidden agenda lurks beneath these common man stories.
It's troubling that Romney isn't worried about the poor because they have safety nets (which by the way happen to be government programs), especially since more and more formerly middle class Americans have fallen into poverty, losing their jobs and their homes.
What's more disturbing, though, is the implication that poor Americans own the poverty niche -- that they have always been poor and are terminally poor -- the poor caste. But we don't have to worry about them because those safety nets will keep them from sinking totally into the abyss, unlike earlier castes of poor people who didn't have the luxury of safety nets. If Romney thought otherwise, he would be deeply concerned about the poor and would passionately seek strategies for getting poor people out of the poverty pit.
Did you ever meet poor people who just loved being poor, whose dream for themselves and their children was slightly better poverty -- more food stamps and better soup kitchens?
They too long for a better life in the land of opportunity -- a piece of the American dream and its promise that in our free open society they can rise to any level. That's why immigrants have flooded to these shores. And indeed their dreams were fulfilled. Generations of impoverished immigrants scratched their way to a better life, which also enabled their children to reach whatever heights their skills, talents and hard work carried them to. That's the American story. Not a lock box of safety nets. Today the poor need support that gives them the tools and opportunities to surmount the growing barriers for the upward journey.
That brings us to Rick Santorum. Education has traditionally been the springboard out of poverty. Indeed, impressive facts certify that the education path genuinely works. If you have less than a high school education you will likely join the ranks of the poor. Get a high school diploma and your prospects increase but they're still limited. If you go on for one of those "snobbish" college degrees that President Obama wants as many young people as possible to achieve, your lifetime income soars compared to the lesser educated. Each year of education adds 10 percent to a worker's income. According to a recent census report, college graduates can expect to earn virtually twice as much as high school graduates over a lifetime. And the gap is widening. While the wages of the college educated are rising, the wages of workers at lower educational levels are falling dramatically. The reason is simple: their skills are not in demand and they are in competition with lower paid workers in the global economy. These realities are clearly evident in the compelling charts and analyses on trends in education and wages compiled by financial analyst Steven Rattner. But Rick Santorum says to young people, if you don't want a college education that's just fine.
Who is Rick Santorum talking to in this age of the knowledge-based economy? Not to anyone I know. And surely not to the middle class, upper-middle class, or wealthy families throughout America. They are wisely encouraging their children to get college degrees. If Romney wants to make another $10,000 bet, a sure winner would be that Rick Santorum -- who himself boasts an MBA and a JD -- will also be sending his kids to college; his two oldest children already attend college.
It's clear then who Rick Santorum is advising to train for low-paying 20th century jobs: the poor -- the caste that will do just fine with all those government safety nets in place. The same caste whose meager education will relegate them to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
But not so fast, Mr. Santorum. The poor are too smart to buy this. College attendance by low-income students is on the rise despite the formidable challenges they face. As recently as 2008 "nearly 47 percent of low-income young adults were currently or previously enrolled in higher education." But they need help. What young people are crying for is relief from the outrageous cost of higher education and the crippling burden of student loans, which is approaching an astonishing trillion dollars.
There is a burgeoning national conversation -- including my proposal for free college education -- about ways to provide educational opportunity for more young people. But nothing can be accomplished if our leaders are not committed to this important goal, if indeed they stand as obstacles to the expansion of economic equality for all Americans. Joe Biden got it right when he said: "It's Santorum versus all of America on issues of higher education."
Sorry, Rick. You will have to travel alone back to the 20th century or perhaps the 19th. Maybe Mr. Romney will lend you one of his family's Cadillacs for the trip. But be careful -- a dog may be on the roof.