Poverty and the Surprising Role It Is and Isn’t Playing in the Election

20 Sep

By: Danielle Schmersal, BSW
MSW Intern, NASW Ohio Chapter

On Sunday, September 16 the weekend morning news show on MSNBC, Up with Chris Hayes, featured an insightful and compassionate discussion of the growing number of Americans living in poverty and the difficulty involved in moving out of poverty, even through education.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently unveiled new figures showing that in 2011 46.2 million Americans were living below the poverty line—the most in almost 20 years. With numbers like this and with a presidential campaign so focused on the economy, it is surprising how little the subject of poverty comes up in the media and in candidate interviews. A new report by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found that less than 1 percent of the media’s campaign coverage has addressed poverty in any way. Even coverage of the recent Chicago teachers’ strike repeatedly failed to note that part of the problem was the disparity in learning environments in Chicago’s economically-segregated school system.

Poverty is being addressed somewhat more in the campaigns. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney recently released brief statements on hunger and poverty for the Christian organizations Circle of Protection and Bread for the World. You can view their statements through this link.

But, for both Democrats and Republicans, poverty’s favored role has been that of an overcome challenge, a vanquished foe. During each convention, histories of personal or familial poverty were recounted by nearly every speaker; stories meant to convey that this politician, this candidate, this official, this spouse completely understands what nearly 50 million Americans are going through. While it is comforting to hear those in power or aspiring to power have struggled and overcome adversity, I cannot help but question the reality of their claims to total empathy.  Remembering years later when you are safe, well-fed, and financially secure is not the same as living with worry and desperation day after day with no end in sight.

Of course, any of Mitt Romney’s claims to empathy were completely overshadowed by Mother Jones’ recently released footage of the Republican presidential candidate speaking candidly with supporters at a $50,000-a-plate dinner about those dependent on government assistance:

…there are 47 percent who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Obviously, this is a very disturbing and inaccurate account of Americans receiving government assistance. (The New York Times’ David Brooks gave a thorough rebuttal to Romney’s statements). But, sadly, one of the ideas behind this view has been supported by politicians and decision-makers on both sides of the aisle: that people have the responsibility to pull themselves out of poverty and can pull themselves up from poverty if they just work hard. At the convention, every personal narrative of poverty ended like an American fairytale because the hero or heroine got the education that led to the job that led to prosperity. But, as noted on Up with Chris Hayes on Sunday:

The fact is it’s increasingly harder in the United States to lift yourself and your family from poverty now than it was fifty years ago…To the extent that poverty and joblessness are mentioned in our political discourse it is always education, which is first—and often only, mentioned as the cure. That prescription sounds intuitive, but what if its premise is wrong? A study in 1995 found that the average low-income child enters kindergarten with a listening vocabulary of 17,000 fewer words than that of a child of middle income. She can recognize only 9 letters of the alphabet as compared to the 22 recognized by middle income children. So if it is possible that the proposition that education fixes poverty is actually backward and that resolving poverty actually fixes many of our education issues then we have to consider whether our remedies for both are upside-down.

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