By: David Person
October 7, 2012
Last week's first presidential debate was largely about the economy, but I didn't hear either President Obama or Mitt Romney say how they would help the poor.
Until recently, in fact, the poor have barely been an afterthought during this presidential campaign. A study released this month by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found that news coverage of poverty from January through June comprised no more than 3% of election stories compared with the 18% that reported on the "debt" or "deficit."
Then former governor Mitt Romney dragged the poor into the campaign with his inaccurate, sweeping indictment of the 47% of Americans who don't pay federal income tax. (He admitted Thursday he was wrong.) But even that gaffe hasn't prompted him or Obama to engage in a more substantive debate about poverty. We've heard precious little about how either candidate would help the 15% of Americans living below the poverty line. The latest Census figures show that 17 states saw an increase in poverty rates from 2010 to 2011.
Romney may assume that focusing on the poor will not win him votes. But a Pew Research Center poll this year showed that 57% of lower-income Republican voters say the government does not do enough for the poor.
Obama cannot take low-income voters for granted, either. They might not show up at the polls for him as they did in 2008. The poor, like many in the middle class, are hurting, and many blame the president for not doing more to address poverty, pump up the economy and create more jobs.
"We knew that the old permanent poor were catching hell, but it was the new middle class that hit us hard," said Princeton professor Cornel West when I interviewed him and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley during their "Poverty Tour 2.0" in September. "(We've seen) folks who had been making $150,000 a year and (were now) living in their cars."
The progressive think tank Center for American Progress found that from 2001 to 2007, profits and productivity went up but poverty increased. During the past three years, the poverty rate hasn't improved and middle-class income has declined.
"Poverty is threatening our democracy, our very way of life," Smiley said. "This is an American catastrophe."
The conservative Heritage Foundation doesn't think so. It published research this summer that suggested the federal definition of being poor should be changed. The study questioned whether families have a place to live, aren't hungry and enjoy various amenities -- refrigerators, microwaves, televisions, air conditioning -- are actually impoverished.
But amenities, which can be gifts, second-hand purchases or rented, don't reflect financial stability or a safe environment. As for hunger, it can be quelled by inexpensive, unhealthy foods. And merely having a place to call home doesn't mean the living conditions are healthy or safe.
Income equality Instead of poverty, Obama and Romney have dueled over the tax rates of the wealthy and middle class -- as they did Wednesday night -- often packaged as a debate about income inequality. Obama has called it "the defining issue of our time." Though it certainly matters to the middle class, and arguably is integral to the nation's overall economic health, it hardly seems "defining" when one in seven Americans are suffering at or below the poverty level. Romney dismissed the income inequality debate as more of the "politics of envy," a canard that ignores the huge income disparities and stark distinctions in the financial realities of those he cavalierly calls the makers and takers.
Both campaigns need to pledge to move beyond political rhetoric and help the poor through government programs and by fostering entrepreneurship through microloans, training and partnerships with businesses, churches and non-profits.
What troubles me is if Romney is elected president because he has said that he isn't "concerned about the very poor." And if Obama wins, the former community organizer for the needy has said the middle class is priority No. 1. What we need in these tough economic times is leadership for all the people.
So who will speak for the poor?