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.

Mary Altaffer/AP/File
Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and his wife, Janna, wash pots at the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio, last month.

A presidential campaign, it would seem, is not the best time to have a comprehensive debate about poverty in America.  

During the primary season, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich called President Obama the “food-stamp president.” It was not a compliment.  

Mitt Romney later told CNN: “You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus.” 

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.  

The last time poverty was a major issue in presidential politics was the 1960s, when President Lyndon B. Johnson instituted a national War on Poverty and Robert Kennedy made a poverty tour in Mississippi. While Mr. Obama’s health-care reforms could have a profound impact on the poor – and were clearly designed to help them – they were often couched in terms designed to appeal to the middle class.  

Partly, that is because of what Mr. Johnson’s Great Society achieved. The programs led to a dramatic reduction in the poverty rate down to about 14 percent by the 1970s. While the rate has not declined since then, it has not gone up much, either, meaning the poor remain a significant minority of the population. Today’s rate fluctuates between 14 and 16 percent, says Professor Parker.  

In addition, the poor consistently vote at much lower levels than other groups, says James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. “People with low incomes have a harder time finding the time and getting out to vote,” he says. “They tend to be less directly engaged, and they have less political information pushed to them.” 

Voting participation among the poor could decline further if voter ID requirements percolating in many red states become law, Professor Henson and other experts say. The obvious conclusion for campaign strategists: Why cater to populations that vote less? 

But some analysts disagree with the idea that poverty being overlooked. The arguments between the left and the right often center on how to reduce poverty and its effects, says David Winston, a former Gingrich aide who now runs Washington strategy firm the Winston Group. 

“Part of the Republican solution to poverty is economic growth,” he says. “For Democrats, it’s creating government programs. That discourse is clearly there and in the forefront.” 

But subtle and intertwining factors make open discussion of poverty difficult in a presidential campaign.  

“Americans are much more likely to explain poverty as the failure of the individual rather than the failure of society,” says Michael Emerson, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston. “Our national narrative has been that you can be anything you want to be. So, if you are poor, it must be because you want to be.” 

That has hardened stereotypes that portray those in poverty as lazy and immoral, he says, leading presidential candidates sometimes to use the poor to try to score political points. If Americans “view the poor as immoral, then one can play on this to win,” he says.  

Mr. Reagan’s “welfare queen” comment is a classic example. So were Mr. Romney’s secretly taped comments that 47 percent of Americans believe they are “victims” and feel “entitled” – though he backed off those remarks. 

Yet perhaps the biggest hurdle to open discussion of poverty in presidential campaigns might be the perception among Americans that they are all middle-class, says Professor Emerson. 

“When politicians say ‘middle class,’ [all Americans] see themselves,” Emerson says. “And when you ask people in surveys, every single American sees themselves as middle class.” 

That might be changing, says Tavis Smiley, a PBS talk-show host who has pushed for broader discussion of poverty in politics.  

Millions of formerly middle-class people lost jobs, homes, and 401Ks during the Great Recession, he notes. And unemployment figures don’t show the unemployed who are so frustrated that they have stopped searching – something that would almost double the unemployment rate. 

All this means those in poverty now include better-educated, politically aware people, Mr. Smiley says. “I’m not an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope,” he says. “Because I see more people burdened by poverty starting to speak up.” 

Yet others note that those technically in poverty by federal standards don’t fit the typical view of poverty. Government data show that 60 percent of poor Americans have cable TV, 30 percent have wide screen or plasma TVs, and a majority live in a well-kept house with more square footage than the dwelling space for a middle-class English family. 

The bigger problem is that money has changed politics so that it serves neither the poor nor the middle class anymore, says Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York.  

“It’s a serious distortion of our political process,” he says. “In a two-party system the poor might get neglected anyway because of an aim for the middle class. But in our political system even the middle class is relatively neglected to the interests of the affluent. They pay for the campaigns.” 

Despite pronounced philosophical differences in how to address poverty, both parties are motivated by money, Sachs says. That leads to an unwillingness to advocate policies that could hit the wealthy too hard.  

But he says poverty is more than just an issue for the poor, and if the terms of the debate were changed, it might not be such a political albatross.  

“Investing in poor, young children has a phenomenally high economic and social rate of social return,” he says. “Because on the one side early investments in childhood development have huge returns later in life in labor-market productivity [and] at the same time they avoid the enormous social costs of crime and unemployment.”

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