War on poverty? Why presidential campaigns don't talk about the poor.
Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has made poverty a big part of his campaign. It's no wonder. Poverty has become something of a toxic issue for many American voters.
A presidential campaign, it would seem, is not the best time to have a comprehensive debate about poverty in America.Skip to next paragraph
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And President Obama – the former community organizer many expected would make poverty a core concern? His health-care reforms were historic. But on the stump he “can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor,’ ” wrote Bob Herbert for the African-American news website, theGrio.com.
This, of course, is nothing new. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan coined the pejorative term “welfare queen” in 1976. But at a time when America is still extracting itself from the after-effects of the Great Recession – when unemployment continues to hover near 8 percent and Republicans themselves argue that it is actually much higher – why is talking about the poor politically toxic?
Primarily, it is a matter of political calculus, experts say. Though the percentage of people living under the poverty line is roughly equal to the percentage of Americans who are Hispanic, no one is courting the poor because their turnout on Election Day is traditionally low.
Moreover, presidential candidates are largely fighting for those few undecided votes in the American political middle who decide an election. For those voters weaned on America’s middle-class sensibilities and a national ethic of “rugged individualism,” public appeals for the poor can sound dissonant. The result is that political advocacy for the poor has largely fallen to the likes of openly liberal groups such as Occupy Wall Street.
The voters who decide presidential elections are “are skeptical that government can produce full employment for the bottom-third of workers,” says Richard Parker, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass.