Why doesn't poverty play a bigger role in US politics?

What is at stake for the poor on Tuesday?

It is not a question that was asked much in the lead-up to Election Day.

With 46 million people currently living in poverty and close to 90 million hovering just above it, the absence of a more frank discussion about America's poverty problem remains a mystery in our national political discourse. Who are "the poor"? Who represents them?

Asked these questions, politicians, activists and academics repeatedly made two points: One, talk of poverty has largely been replaced by talk of inequality in American life with an emphasis on the middle class, and two, nobody wants to say that they are "poor."

"Referring to income-challenged individuals as 'the poor' came from a moral or religious underpinning that used to be a very profound part of American politics, as late as maybe 30 years ago," said Brenda Jones, a longtime congressional staffer. "Now, people have moved away from morality as a primary motivation or an overriding sense of what is good, and so it's harder to discuss the idea of what is 'right' in American politics today. It does not resonate the way it used to."

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Today, "young people have consumer-influenced value systems that de-emphasize the intrinsic worth of human beings and highlight their connection to what they consume," Jones said. And beginning in the Reagan era, "misinformation about poverty became part of mainstream political rhetoric. 'The poor' began to be villainized and blamed for their circumstance."

"Income equality is the term people use now to refer to the poor," she said. "It puts the struggle of the poor in a context that people today can comprehend. In this time, money is viewed by many as the solution to everything, so to refer to 'the poor' as people who have unequal access to income and less opportunity to build wealth resonates with more people today ... [It's] more neutral. It carries less stigma, but it also may be less motivating."

'Class confusion'

Many conversations about modern American poverty begin by discussing life above the poverty line before meeting those who have already hit rock bottom.

A kind of "class confusion" has made its way into American life, said John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

In the wake of the Great Recession (as well as social movements like Occupy Wall Street), politicians regularly "testify that they come from working-class backgrounds," he said.

But at a demographic level, the effects of inequality have confused the very meaning of the term.

"Between blacks and whites, there is a convergence in terms of wages," Russo said. "But within each category -- that is, within the white group, within the black group -- those discrepancies are growing. The same is true between men and women. The difference between men and women in terms of wages is getting smaller and smaller, in many cases because white men have lost middle-class jobs. But at the same time, within the category of gender, the difference of inequality is rising."

"That sort of confuses all this," he said.

"What you had with the recession, with the collapse, with people who never imagined losing their jobs was a complete need to rethink what it [means] for people not to be able to support themselves at a level that they imagine to be middle class," said John Kromkowski, an expert in urban and ethnic politics at The Catholic University of America.

"An entirely new kind of poverty emerged," he said, and yet "fundamentally, everyone believes they're middle class."

"I think it is difficult to identify as living in poverty," said Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a social justice lobby. "It makes me think of this woman I met a couple years ago in Charlotte [N.C.]. She discovered she was in the bottom 20 percent, and she called me up a few days later in tears, saying, 'I'm not lower class! I'm not lower class!' "

It has to do with the stigma attached to poverty, Campbell said. "They internalize that judgment, but they know they're not lazy. And so how could they possibly be poor?"

Maybe "the reason for blaming the poor as lazy is that it makes [the person doing the blaming] feel secure that, 'If I'm not lazy, I'll never be poor,' " Campbell said. "It's more about me and controlling my future than it is about the reality of poverty."

And what is the reality of poverty?

"The reality is that you've got people who are working so hard -- two, three jobs -- and they're still living in poverty."

No 'war' on poverty today

"The people that point to character and life choices as a reason for poverty -- well, I don't know what word to use. I mean, none of us get through this life on our own," said former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

"I was talking with a friend recently about the fact that Lyndon Johnson had a 'war' on poverty," Strickland said. "I really can't imagine politicians being willing to talk about a 'war' on poverty today."

"One of the problems that exists for the political class is that many have never experienced poverty in any direct way other than seeing a homeless person on the sidewalk," he said.

"I went to [a chain pharmacy story] the other day and I got some medicine and shampoo and razor blades, and I was thinking, 'My God, I just spent about $85 without even thinking much about it.' But a person who's living on minimum wage, maybe with a couple kids, has some broken-down car, the muffler's falling off, can't get it fixed, can't possibly afford new tires, I mean, that's the way life is day after day after day, month after month, year after year. And I think a lot of people [who aren't poor] shut that out, because it's so uncomfortable. They don't permit themselves to think deeply about that kind of experience and whether or not we have a responsibility to do something meaningful about it."

Again, returning to the middle class, "wages have been stagnant for so long," Strickland said. "People are just generally finding it so hard to hold on to what they have, to their standard of life, that they don't have the expendable energy to focus on people who are poor. It's almost like a kind of exhaustion."

Social dynamics and structural political issues also play a role, Kromkowski said.

"You can't get a working-class agenda going because all of the media and all of its listeners are only listening to items within a certain register," he said. "That register is constrained in such a way not to give people a chance to be conscious of anything else."

At a historical level, by the time of President Ronald Reagan, "the labor movement had already been crushed ... there was a deep, structural situation that made life very difficult for the working class and the poor."

New kinds of geographical isolation -- such as extreme poverty in blighted urban neighborhoods and growing poverty in suburbs -- made for an "extremely and overwhelming difficult problem that no one wanted to bite."

"Because districts were structured the way they were, you couldn't really build a coalition that would address the issue of poverty," Kromkowski said. "You couldn't build coalitions unless you could build something like a metropolitan political force. But then you run into a tremendous blockage in Congress. The last time there was any significant urban coalition in Congress, there were only 70 congressional persons and no senators. ... [Today] we just don't have the political juice to continue any poverty initiative."

Food and water policy expert Dave Andrews, a Holy Cross brother who directed the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and served as a senior adviser to the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations, struggles to make sense of greater American society's moral disinterest in the issue of poverty.

"In Iowa, where agricultural production is the main industry, you have schools where 80 percent of the kids from rural communities are in the school feeding programs," he said. "It just shows the contradiction. How can you live amidst plenty and still be struggling for food? Extending that to the whole United States, we have 40 million people that are food insecure, again, in a country that produces tremendous agricultural plenty."

"It's confounding," he said. "The most basic elements of life. I'm struck with it."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]


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