Let’s give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt: He didn’t really mean it when he said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Or, let’s just say he cares about them no less than he cares about the rest of us. Only 41 percent of respondents in a recent poll said that Romney “cares about people like me,” so if the wisdom of crowds is any guide, the very poor are hardly unique as objects of his indifference.

Let’s look instead at Romney’s follow-up: That there’s a “safety net” for the very poor, and “if there are holes in it, I’ll fix them.” This isn’t just a walk-back of the “not concerned” comment. It represents a very real element of an emerging conservative argument, one that deserves to be taken seriously. In this antiquated vision of the economy, everything is fine for most people, but there is a slice of the “very poor” who might need some help. Poverty, in this vision, is the exception; prosperity and opportunity without government aid is the norm. (Jonathan Cohn noted yesterday that Romney and his party aren’t serious about repairing the safety net, but for our purposes, let’s take him at his word.)

In some ways, Romney’s poverty-exceptionalism is an old postwar liberal vision. John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society, wrote about “islands” of poverty in the midst of plenty. Michael Harrington’s breakthrough in The Other America, which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary this year, was to show that poverty was whiter and more widespread than Galbraith had assumed, touching perhaps 40 million people, which was still just one fifth of the country. (Today we’d call it “the 20%”.) William Julius Wilson, in his 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged, called for a focus not so much on the breadth of poverty, but on its depth and intractability in one of Galbraith’s “islands,” the black inner-city. Much liberal philanthropy and social services are still driven by a vision not of the economy as a whole, but of poverty as a distinct and identifiable exception within an otherwise functioning system.

Often, it was conservatives and Republicans who challenged the poverty-exceptionalism of liberals. Ronald Reagan, for example, was a supporter of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefited not the very poor, but those who had low incomes even though they worked. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, both Republicans and Democrats gradually built out programs like Medicaid to extend beyond the poverty line, a long trend that culminated in the mandatory expansion of Medicaid by an estimated 16 million people in the Affordable Care Act, as well as the subsidies for people earning up to four times the poverty line. To the extent that the 1996 welfare reform “worked,” it was in part because of these expansions: They ensured that people wouldn’t automatically lose all their other supports if they moved from the ranks of welfare recipients to the working poor. The idea that the safety net could be a trap, unless some of its benefits were extended to the working poor and even beyond, was not purely a conservative idea, but it was a point of significant bipartisan agreement.

Romney, and a new group of conservative thinkers, have aggressively rejected this consensus. Romney attacks our current “entitlement society” as “a fundamental corruption of American society” because it provides benefits to a large swath of society. The “entitlement society,” Romney has said, “makes us all poor,” because it encourages so many of us to rely on the government for services. William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute has made a similar argument in his book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. The extension of benefits and supports to the working poor and beyond, Voegeli argues, knows no natural boundaries and will eventually consume all our resources. This new-ish argument is an extension of the claim made by deficit hawks such as David Walker of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation that an “entitlement crisis” is the cause of long-term budget deficits. But Romney, like Voegeli, takes it much, much further: “The battle we face today is more than a fight over our budget. It is a battle for America’s soul.” Government programs for the non-poor, in other words, are not just expensive, but  actually detrimental to the vast majority of their beneficiaries.

Voegeli, like Romney, claims to support a strong safety net—as long as it’s exclusively for the very poor. So does Representative Paul Ryan, who argued in the Wall Street Journal last April that “the safety net for the poor is coming apart at the seams” and promised “a secure safety net” as part of his budget proposal. Like Romney, Ryan’s proposals don’t actually reflect this vision (his proposal to convert Medicaid to a block grant to the states, for example, would destroy that system for the very poor as well as the working poor), but what they claim to be doing is reducing government spending by focusing benefits on the “truly disadvantaged.” Meanwhile, those who aren’t truly disadvantaged are expected to somehow benefit from being left on their own. 

In taking up this new conservative line, Romney and others are trashing an important part of Reagan’s legacy and a significant bipartisan innovation over the past few decades. The idea of supporting and rewarding work and responsibility met up with the recognition that people need supports—health care, child care, income security—in order to take full advantage of opportunities after they leave the ranks of the “very poor.” And in the current economy, the working poor and near-poor need every bit of help they can get to avoid slipping further down. That’s probably much more true than when Harrington wrote, at a time when Americans above the poverty line were far more likely to belong to a union, have some job security, and have little debt. Today’s low-income workers bear far more risk of unemployment, health costs, and debt. Without protections such as Medicaid and job training, the proverbial “safety net” will be pitched so low that by the time people reach it, they will already have slipped off the main track of the economy. The need to look at the economy as a whole, in which poverty is not an exception but both the working poor and the very poor, along with a large portion of the rest of the 99%, are similarly struggling, is greater than ever.

Romney deserves mockery for his clumsy language. He deserves to be called out for the fact that he wouldn’t actually “repair” the safety net. But we should also recognize that there is an underlying vision to his mangled words, and that that vision marks a dramatic break from the conservative tradition. It’s also far out of step with what people need in order to participate in the modern American economy.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.