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A damning silence on poverty

By Blake Zeff on August 29, 2012
© NY Daily News

Watch any news program since Paul Ryan was selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, and chances are, you’ll hear all about his plan to aggressively alter Medicare.

But watch all those shows back to back, and it’s a good bet you’ll hear barely a whisper about Ryan’s more Draconian proposal to cut an astounding $1.4 trillion from Medicaid, the program relied on by millions of low-income Americans.

Or the House’s plan to cut $16.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food assistance to millions of low-income Americans, including school meals for our nation’s neediest children.

At work is a disturbing trend whereby poverty has nearly entirely receded from the national conversation today — despite hitting its worst levels since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on the problem almost five decades ago.

While we can certainly argue over the sincerity of his convictions, John Edwards’ presidential campaigns and their economic arguments about two Americas provided a national megaphone for the oft-ignored cause in 2004 and 2008.

By contrast, the most attention poverty has received during the current campaign was Romney allowing he was “not concerned about the very poor,” because, “We have a safety net there.”

“Poverty is a huge issue no one wants to talk about now,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a leader in the anti-poverty movement who supports the President, told me. “We need someone of national prominence — a presidential candidate or cabinet member — willing to take this on.”

The political neglect of Edwards’ signature issue coincides with the highest poverty rate in nearly half a century. Some 47 million, or about one in six, Americans is now poor — and the poverty rate is expected to hit 15.7%, its highest mark since 1965, according to The Associated Press.

“The poverty debate has really suffered from a lack of explicit rhetoric about the problem,” says the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a leading faith-based organization that advocates for anti-hunger reforms. “Candidates from both parties should be talking about it.”

But with the disgraced Edwards no longer a viable advocate, the cause is in search of a charismatic, national leader.

While Occupy Wall Street dramatically transformed the national discussion on economic inequality, its “We are the 99%” message hews more closely to a wider-ranging critique of capitalism than a narrow focus on poverty reform.

What’s more, the most visible recent effort to bring attention expressly to poverty may be not that of any candidate or officeholder, but a media mogul and university professor: Last August, talk show host Tavis Smiley and academic Cornel West conducted a Poverty Tour, rightly arguing the presidential hopefuls had ignored the issue. And the duo plans to launch a Poverty Tour 2.0 next month.

But that’s no replacement for presidential attention. Back in 1964, an election year when the poverty rate was 19%, Johnson declared a War on Poverty in his State of the Union speech, marking it a national priority leading to legislation establishing programs — including Head Start — aimed at improving the education, health and welfare of the nation’s poor. Four years later, a multiday poverty tour was central to Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, before his tragic assassination.

“In the ’60s, the whole country knew we had to do something about poverty, so after LBJ, (President Richard) Nixon worked on the problem, too,” Beckmann, a World Food Prize laureate, says. Noting that no such consensus exists today, he adds, “Policies won’t come until politicians talk about the more than 40 million Americans living in poverty.”

In President Obama’s defense, experts give him credit for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, providing health insurance to millions and extending eligibility for Medicaid to those with incomes below 133% of the federal poverty level.

And they say that measures in his 2009 stimulus bill to extend the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit have been laudable.

But these measures don’t come close to adequately addressing the poverty problem plaguing so much of the country — and even they are under fire, largely because Obama has been shy to articulate the need to help the poor, focusing his rhetoric on the vote-rich middle class.

“We ought to have another ‘war on poverty.’ We should articulate the goal that no one should suffer from hunger,” says McGovern, co-chairman of the House Hunger Caucus.

“But,” he adds, “we can’t get anyone to say it.”




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