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Poverty is everywhere, except on the campaign trail
American elections suffer from a number of sad realities, but few are as disheartening as the absence of poverty from the mainstream political discourse. For how little the two main candidates talk about the poor, you’d think poverty rates were historically low, rather than at the highest level since 1965. Perhaps more dismaying, for me, is that the two times I’ve seen poverty in the headlines since we all began thinking about the election, Mitt Romney has been the one talking about it. Most recently, he and Paul Ryan lamented that one in six Americans is now in poverty, and blamed the president’s economic policies for the increase.
Now, let’s not get carried away. The GOP hopefuls may have mentioned the poor more than President Obama, but it doesn’t mean they’re saying anything constructive. After all, the other time Romney touched on it was to say “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
That’s almost comical, as his fellow Republicans in the House seem intent on dismantling those social programs, refusing to pass the Farm Bill unless it defunds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. But as irrational as conservatives in this country are about poverty, they have a point about Obama. Our supposedly progressive president has given far too little attention in both his rhetoric and his policies to address the systemic problem of American poverty.
There was a time when this wasn’t the case. Back before he took office, Obama fashioned himself as a candidate who would finally fight for the downtrodden. In July 2007, he spoke movingly to an audience in Anacostia about the injustice of the American system—even recalling Bobby Kennedy’s famous anti-poverty tour of the Deep South during the 1968 presidential campaign. “How can a country like this allow it?” he said, quoting Kennedy’s teary-eyed remark to reporters after speaking to malnourished children in Mississippi. “The most American answer I can think of to that question is two words: ‘We can’t.’ We can’t allow this type of suffering,” Obama answered.
Sadly, allowing it is exactly what the President has done. The man who said the best education he ever had came as a community organizer in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods has given exactly zero speeches about poverty since he assumed office. Candidate Obama promised billions of dollars for inner city development programs, but has only doled out $40 million to date. Another $60 million is scheduled for community grants, but this represents a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of programs cut by state and local governments since the recession began.
Candidate Obama said in his Anacostia speech that he wanted to create jobs and “make sure those jobs keep folks out of poverty,” but that is becoming impossible in today’s low-wage economy. Before the recession began, 70 percent of households with food-insecure children had at least one parent employed full-time, according to the census bureau. Even so, the President won’t support common sense policies to make sure work can pay the bills. He won’t even get behind Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10, despite that his proposal would make it the same in real terms as it was in 1968.
On some level, I understand the President’s apprehension for talking about the poor. As the first black head of state, he doesn’t want to be labeled as the welfare candidate. But Newt Gingrich has already tried to paint him as the “food stamp president,” and Mitt Romney accuses him of fostering a “culture of dependency” with social programs. His political avoidance strategy isn’t working at all; it actually costs him a chance to point out Republican’s irrational policies towards the poor.
For instance, the GOP’s attempt to defund SNAP could be a huge selling point for Obama. Over 45 million people—half of them children—now rely on the program to help put food on the table. Healthcare studies have shown the assistance program prevents hospitalizations, promotes child development, and improves school performance.
Even so, this program would fall under the axe if Republicans had their way. Paul Ryan is on record saying the costs are “unsustainable,” even though at its peak in 2011 SNAP cost a whopping 0.52 percent of GDP, and that price is projected to decrease by half as the economy improves. The cuts to the program in his budget would, according to the Center for American Progress, “force America’s poorest families to forgo as many as 8.2 billion meals a year,” and would cost over 182,000 jobs through the loss of grocery sales. Obama has failed to take a bite out of this juicy political opportunity, and now Republicans, of all people, control the dialogue about poverty.
But as tantalizing as the politics are, they don’t illustrate the biggest reason why Obama should stand up for the poor. For that, veteran PBS host Bill Moyers had a suggestion for the President: “You once told the big bankers on Wall Street that you were the only thing that stood between them and the pitchforks of an angry public. How about telling the poor that you will make sure our government stands between them and the cliff?”