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Why Poverty Issue Is Missing on the Presidential Campaign Trail

Posted: Jul 24, 2012

 Two reports issued the same day tell of two appalling realities—the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. Yet there is not a faint mention of the word poverty on the presidential trail.

One report on an AP survey shows that the poor are not only getting poorer, they are also more numerous than any time in the last half century. The other report from the Tax Justice Network finds that the super-rich are not only getting richer, they are also squirreling tens of trillions in offshore tax havens, far outside the reaches of the US and other nation’s tax collectors.

Wealthy Americans are amply represented among the offshore tax evaders. This money could bankroll business startups, expand businesses, fatten federal and state tax revenues, and create thousands of new jobs. This would do much to blunt the steady rise in the number of those that slip into the poverty ranks.

The devastating impact of poverty on American economic life is well known. It wastes the talents, energy, and productive potential of many in the work force. In some communities it increases crime which overburdens the police, the courts, and prisons, and makes doing business in these areas more costly. It strains the health care and welfare systems. It leads to a bigger tax drain on the middle class. It sharply reduces the ability of thousands of consumers to purchase goods and services, further crimping business growth and reducing government tax revenues.

There are several reasons why “fighting poverty” isn’t a theme in the presidential contest. First, defining who is poor is a challenge. Apart from the visibly homeless, those rummaging around on skid row, and residents of if the poorest and most recognizable urban inner city communities, there are people who can easily be considered working, or even middle class one day but suddenly poor the next due to the loss of a job and tangible income.

This makes the poor even more diffuse, and hard to typecast. They cut across all ethnic, gender, religious and even political party lines. There are low-income persons in the South, Middle-America, and the rural areas that are conservative, and vote GOP.

Another reason is that the poor do not have an advocacy group to bat for them with lawmakers compared with labor, civil rights, education, environmental, or abortion rights supporters. This further increases their political invisibility.

The poor had loud champions during a brief moment in the 1960s, when a small band of anti-poverty groups and organizers got the attention of the Johnson Administration. They shouted, cajoled, and actively lobbied LBJ for a major expansion of anti-poverty programs, funding, and initiatives to reduce poverty in the nation. But the anti-poverty crusade quickly fell victim to Johnson’s Vietnam War build up and the increased shrill attacks from conservatives that painted the war on poverty as a scam to reward deadbeats and loafers.

Another reason for the silence about poverty on the campaign trail is that the national economic and fiscal emphasis is on how to hack away tens of billions from spending on domestic and even the once sacred military programs. President Obama and GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney fiercely arm wrestle over which one can best bring down the deficit, reduce spending, decrease taxes, get rid of wasteful programs and they spar over how best to protect the interests of the middle class. It’s about votes, and a pro-middle-class, diminished spending line, appeals to centrists, and independents that both Romney and Obama are banking on for victory.

The biggest reason that politicians don’t dare make poverty a political issue is that the existence of so many poor people flies in the face of the embedded laissez faire notion that the poor aren’t poor because of the hyper concentration of wealth, or worse, any failing of the system; they’re poor because of their personal failings. Surveys have borne this out. Even many among the poor blame themselves for their poverty. They blame it on bad luck, lack of education and skills, or on alcohol and drug problems. These are certainly reasons why some fall into poverty or remain chronically poor but they are at best peripheral to the real cause of rising poverty—the control by a relatively handful of the bulk of the nation’s income, resources, and productive wealth.

The poor will continue to grow in numbers, but they are nameless, faceless, and voiceless. This insures that poverty will remain missing from the presidential campaign trail.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.

Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson

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