Poverty and politics

As the Campaign for the WhiteHouse moves into hight gear, Is anyone looking out for the interests of the poor?

May 04, 2007|By Lionel S. Lewis

Every presidential candidate wants to be a good friend to the middle class. As for the rich - well, they'll always be taken care of, one way or another. But as the campaign for the White House moves into high gear, is anyone looking out for the interests of the poor?

More than 10 percent of American families - about 37 million people - live at or below the poverty line. For decades, more than 40 percent of the poor have been children.

Throughout the years, the percentage of poor families with children has varied widely. But one thing has been consistent: With the exception of Jimmy Carter's single term, for the past 50 years, when a Democratic president was in the White House, childhood poverty decreased, only to rise again with a new Republican administration.

This suggests that poverty rates can be affected by changing the government's priorities.

So far, in the 2008 presidential campaign, poverty is receiving passing attention from some on the Democratic side, and is being mostly ignored by the Republicans. Indeed, ever since "welfare as we know it" was eliminated with a presidential signature a dozen years ago, politicians in Washington have been pretending that reforming welfare somehow made poor people disappear.

When Democrats express a general interest in families, they almost invariably use the clarifier "working" or "middle class." The title of a recent book by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York - Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time - says a great deal about the current interests of Democrats.

In her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, which is concerned with strengthening the American family to strengthen American society, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton alerts readers to the peril of "children's potential lost to spirit-crushing poverty." However, she gives equal weight to, among others, children "lost in divorce and custody fights," as well as to more general problems, such as tobacco use, only tangentially related to poverty. Poor families are less of a concern to her than the "bleak backdrop" of "greed, materialism and spiritual emptiness" plaguing all American families.

In a brief discussion of inner-city poverty in The Audacity of Hope, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois suggests that teenage girls be encouraged to avoid having children out of wedlock, that any strategy to reduce poverty "has to be centered on work," and that jobs (particularly for males) need to be made available.

With his goal of "eliminating poverty within 30 years," former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina does suggest integrating the poor into the larger society with housing vouchers. But, like other Democrats, he stresses "expecting people to help themselves by working whenever they are able."

There is essentially no discussion of poverty among the other Democratic candidates. During the first presidential debate, the topic of income inequality was not discussed.

On the Republican side, poverty receives even less attention. In a solicitation letter, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani boasts about turning welfare offices into job centers and implementing welfare-to-work initiatives. Elsewhere, he refers to his success in "cracking down on deadbeat dads."

The other top candidates avoid the problem of poverty. In the 1990s, Mitt Romney stated that welfare recipients should be required to work, and in 2005, as governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a bill for state-run homelessness projects. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has voted in favor welfare-to-work programs. He is also for reducing the involvement of the federal government in poverty programs and having faith-based organizations do more. Like Mr. Romney, he has said next to nothing publicly on the matter in the last few years.

Similarly, neither Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin nor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas directly addresses poverty, but both of them remind voters of having greatly reduced welfare when they were governors.

In sum, the dominant theme in the almost nonexistent discussion of poverty in the 2008 presidential campaign is the promise to make sure that the poor have jobs so that the help they receive is truly necessary and deserved.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that many politicians and others seem content with a poverty rate of about 10 percent. Although this figure apparently doesn't get people riled up, it means that more than 1 million Americans will be born into a life of want, grief and squalor in the next two years. In the 2008 elections, will anyone speak for them?

Lionel S. Lewis, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is the author of "The Cold War and Academic Governance: The Lattimore Case at Johns Hopkins." His e-mail is soclsl@buffalo.edu.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.