Saturday, April 28, 2012

Romney's Glib Economic Advice

“Take a shot, go for it. Take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business,” Mitt Romney to students at Otterbein University in Ohio
As Romney suggests, many entrepreneurs can and have borrowed from family. Some can even, like Mitt himself, start what he has called a “small business” with millions, perhaps billions, of other people’s capital. But, the presumption that every bright, creative and ambitious person out there has those kinds of resources, and the failure to recognize and acknowledge the difficult, often near heroic, feats of patience, persistence, flexibility and creativity -- of those who don't, is a problem in a man who is seeking to lead the nation with the claim that economic competency is his main qualification for doing so. It also appears to be a presumption many of our media elites, those who have criticized criticism of Romney’s statement, apparently share.
I own a small business with my husband -- totally self-financed by savings and sacrifices and, among other things, going without health insurance for the first several years. We have a small staff that's been with us for a long time, but over the years we have also used seasonal and part time help, mostly college students, mostly community college students hoping to go on to a four year college, and trade school students, from poor and working class families. We offer higher than average wages and the kind of flexibility in terms of hours that big box stores and others retailers – that provide the jobs most commonly available to young people -- no longer are willing to provide.
Over the last 20 years, that’s provided us with an opportunity to see the ever more difficult obstacles facing often extremely bright, creative and ambitious kids from much less than affluent backgrounds, and, in some cases, watch the long but persistent struggle they must wage to get an education, gain skills and climb the economic ladder. Obviously, none of these employees’ parents could pay for their education much less help launch them in business. In fact, more than one of our employees over the years has been working to pay for their education, pay for their own support, and send money home -- to family members who had become seriously ill or were disabled. More than one had more than one job -- working a fulltime job, plus, working part time with us, while also attending school.
One young man, who set up our initial website 15 or 16 years ago, and over the years has become a friend, was basically homeless when he started working for us -- couch surfing with friends, catching classes at local community colleges when he could afford to. He was the late-in-life youngest son of a father who in the ‘70s and ‘80s had had a successful career in high tech. Like many others he lost his job in the recession of the late 80s and, as happens commonly to men in technical fields who find themselves unemployed in their 50s and beyond, was never able to work at that level again. In fact, in the ‘90s he experienced long periods of unemployment. By the time our employee was college age his parents’ dire financial straits had torn the family apart. At one point though, after this young man had worked with us for a couple of years, his Dad landed a job and his circumstances improved enough to offer his son a place to live and a chance to attend school full time. That lasted less than a year before his father was laid off again; our now former employee had to go back to work fulltime to help pay the rent -- for his father. Eventually, over several years and with thousands of dollars of debt, he earned a degree online. During that time, he spent years doing low paying service jobs and, as he gained education, contract tech work. Finally, with expensive online degree in hand and years of good, although insecure and inadequately paid, experience under his belt, he landed a great job with a fast growing company in a cutting edge field and is rising rapidly through the ranks. He's now taking advantage of Stanford's free online classes both to expand his skills and just for the pleasure of experiencing education at a level he never before could afford to access.
In the context of the struggle of young people like these, Mr. Romney's remark comes across as flip and clueless.
For young people working to the rise from poverty into the middle class, much less into real affluence and ownership, this economy is full of pitfalls and traps. And those who do make it pay a high price -- in debt, in years of health and income insecurity, in lesser time and resources to prepare for retirement, start a family, gain personal assets.
The fact is, young people trying to rise from the poor and working class, and for many sons and daughters of the middle class too, especially in an economy that has destroyed or devalued so many of the sources of middle class security (secure employment, housing values, pensions, savings and investments) do not have family resources, not even meager ones, to rely on as they plan and work for their future. For them, low interest college loans, generous grant programs, more affordable and accessible public colleges and universities, higher entry level wages, more work flexibility, more affordable health insurance and health care, are what is needed -- along with political acknowledgment of their own existence and value.
But today all of those things are either under attack by Romney and his party, or, non-existent.
A postscript: For the first few years of our business my husband and I could not afford the high premiums for individual health insurance. At one point we were paying off a supplier who had offered us an opportunity to buy him out -- it was a good opportunity, but making those payments meant another 6 months to a year without health insurance. During that time my husband developed a small lump on his neck. We tried to tell ourselves it was just a cyst, but at heart we both knew it was something more serious -- yet, my husband was afraid to go to the doctor and be diagnosed with a "pre-existing condition" that would be a reason for denying coverage. As soon as we had discharged our debt to the former supplier, we started paying premiums for insurance. My husband was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Thankfully, thyroid cancer is a slow growing cancer. After a delicate, 7-hour surgery, he was fine.
If Romney was a little more familiar with this kind of reality, and these sorts of “risks,” he wouldn't speak so glibly about what it takes to start a business, especially for those not born in circumstances like his.


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