Poverty in the Presidential Campaign: What’s There, Not and Why

Back in 2012, Greg Kaufmann, then a columnist for The Nation, launched a social media campaign that eventually morphed into the TalkPoverty.org blog and related projects.

The aim was to get poverty issues into what Kaufmann referred to as “the mainstream political debate.” To that end, we were to tweet poverty-related facts and questions to the moderators of the Presidential debates, using #TalkPoverty as the hashtag.

Now we’re nearing the end of a seemingly endless campaign that becomes more bizarre with each passing day. Kaufmann and colleagues have relaunched theirs, with a new hashtag — #WhereDoYouStand.

They want us to tweet questions on specific policies, e.g., a minimum wage increase, expansions of Social Security. We were then to post them on a website that let others vote for questions they’d most like the moderators of the second debate to ask.

Last time I checked, only three such questions had gotten enough votes to put them in the top 30 — those that the moderators had said they’d consider. Perhaps they did, but they didn’t ask any of them. No poverty talk in the third debate either.

We do, however, have one Presidential candidate who’s chosen to talk poverty, as distinguished from telling all blacks they’re poor. Hillary Clinton (or her people) authored an op-ed for The New York Times that actually used the p-word and presented a plan of sorts.

It’s the sort of thing the #WhereDoYouStand campaign seems to have in mind, though perhaps less specific in some policy areas due to the column-length constraint.

No such constraint on her website, which has lots of initiatives tucked into a dozen or so issue areas. Her recently-announced Child Tax Credit reforms flesh out bullet points there.

All this is fine for policy wonks — and perhaps for others who can seize on a few issues that especially matter to them. But it’s hard to get one’s mind around the agenda as a whole.

The Times rousing endorsement alludes to this, allowing as how Clinton’s policy proposals are thus far a “pointillist collection.”

I think we’d benefit from a framework of some sort. I haven’t seen it in the campaigns — and doubt that any of us will. And not only because we’re in the homestretch with one campaign imploding.

An NPR reporter says that Trump has basically one poverty proposal — “jobs, jobs jobs.” We can piece together something more like an agenda from his other campaign themes, plus earlier remarks and ghost-written books.

Poverty is the fault of people who don’t work and policies that encourage them to laze around. So we’ll blow the policies away and create a bazzilion more jobs. Keep undocumented workers from having them — and apparently some who have legal authority to work.

We’ll make all safety net benefits temporary and condition them all on work. Don’t let teen mothers have them unless they “jump through some pretty small hoops” — including, it seems, finding a group home to live in.

So I’m mulling over what a credible framework would look like. What, in other words, would the major headings be for an agenda to address the causes and consequences of poverty in America?

On the other hand, I’m mindful of reasons our candidates would rather not make poverty their “vision thing,” to borrow from then-candidate Bush, the first.

Economist/blogger Jared Bernstein observes that “the poor are not necessarily the swing voters you’re trying to pick off.” In other words, they’re likely to vote for the candidate from whichever party they usually vote for.

But they’re not all that likely to vote, as a recent Census analysis shows. Nothing new about this, except the figures. We see similar low turnout rates dating back to 2004.

We’re well aware of barriers states impose, especially since the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. But perhaps more people who could vote would if they thought the outcome would make a difference in their lives.

They wouldn’t necessarily turn out if a candidate made poverty, so-labeled central to his/her campaign, however.

A Pew Research survey that focused on views about the economy and government policies found that a very large majority of respondents viewed themselves as middle class — 76%, counting those who put themselves in the lower middle.

Nearly 20% of adults under 65 had incomes at or below 150% of the very low poverty thresholds that year. But only 11% of Pew’s respondents identified themselves as “lower class,” perhaps because that’s a generally pejorative term.

But so is “poor” — thanks to years to fault-finding, fraud myths and the like. Thanks also to years of identifying “middle class” with contrasting virtues like hard work, prudence, responsible child-rearing (and bearing), etc.

That’s partly why our Presidential candidates (and others) refer instead to “income inequality,” a political science professor says.

Perhaps also why Clinton headlined her Child Tax Credit proposal as a “middle class tax cut,” though more than three-quarters of the people who’d benefit are poor, according to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ estimates.

And it’s probably why she, as Bernstein notes, “doesn’t always connect the dots to poverty and low-income workers,” even when she’s teeing up plans like the CTC reforms, a minimum wage increase and investments targeted to deeply depressed communities.

Probably also why Trump has chosen to connect the dots between indifferent (or worse) politicians and the griefs, resentments and fears of Americans whom he addresses as the once and future middle class.

“If we want the media to talk about poverty, we have to turn anti-poverty work into an anti-poverty movement,” says Jeremy Slevin at TalkPoverty.org. He’s referring specifically to the talking heads who moderate debates.

But it seems equally apt for candidates, whether prompted by “the media” or otherwise — and whether contending for the Presidency or down-ballot offices.

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