The forgotten issue in the presidential campaign | Bleader

The forgotten issue in the presidential campaign


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President Obama speaking at the University of Southern California
Imagine if 38 percent of white children were living in poverty. Poverty wouldn't be an issue in the presidential campaign. It would be the issue.

That's the percentage of African-Americans under 18 living in poverty in the U.S. It's more than triple the percentage of white kids in poverty (12). Thirty-five percent of Hispanic children are also living in poverty.

Child poverty has compelling and lasting implications. Children living in poverty are more likely to have cognitive and behavioral problems; they complete fewer years of school and end up spending more years unemployed. It's a particularly severe affliction for African-American children who, because of the racial segregation they also experience disproportionately, suffer the especially virulent impacts of concentrated poverty.

The rate of child poverty has been climbing. Among all U.S. children, it has risen from 16 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2010. Among African-American children, it has risen from 31 percent to the present 38 percent during the last decade.

Mitt Romney's website lists 14 domestic issues, but child poverty or racial inequality apparently didn't make the cut, although "gun rights" did. A campaign slogan prominent on the website says, "We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in." Romney's ideas on taxes, labor, and education emphasize competition and cutting and consolidating government.

What about Barack Obama's website? Poverty's missing there as well. Under "Jobs and the Economy" website visitors learn about Obama's "aggressive steps" to "create an economy where hard work pays and responsibility is rewarded." Under "Education" the tougher standards stemming from the president's "Race to the Top" competition are lauded. "Women's Health" praises the expanded coverage for birth control. "Equal Rights" commends the president's repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, his work for equal pay for women, his signing of hate crimes legislation, his Justice Department's reforms of the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Health Care" notes that Obama's Affordable Care Act is "providing security to working families" and strengthening Medicare. "Taxes" extols his tax cuts for working families.

Women, gays, the disabled, working families, the elderly—there's a special place in the choir for everyone on Obama's website. Everyone but the minority poor.

When he took office, Obama and his advisers undoubtedly believed that the first African-American president had to prove he wasn't merely a president for African-Americans. Even without pushing for new help for the poor, he's been derided as "the best food-stamp president in American history" by Newt Gingrich because of rising food stamp use due to the recession that began before he became president.

Obama is hardly alone among Democratic presidents in neglecting the special problem of African-American poverty. Bill Clinton's "solution" was "reforming" welfare in 1996 by trimming the rolls, with time-limited assistance and work requirements but little training for those lacking job skills. With its politic title, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was broadly popular. As a result of that act, since the recession hit a few years ago, many single mothers who desperately need welfare now can't get it. "They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners—all with children in tow," the New York Times noted earlier this month.

The Obama camp may also feel that because the poor don't vote in large numbers, and because their cause is unpopular, poverty is best addressed furtively (although there's little evidence that even this is happening). When it comes to poverty, Obama seems to have his own don't-tell policy.

But the last president to win big victories for the poor was candid and outspoken about poverty—even in the midst of his campaign.

In Lyndon Johnson's 1964 race against Barry Goldwater, he toured depressed areas of the nation, calling for support for a billion-dollar war on poverty. In a speech in Atlanta that May, LBJ said he didn't believe that southerners "who sit this morning secure in their affluence and safe in their power will now turn from the sufferings of their neighbor." He wouldn't rest, he said, "until every section of this country is linked in a single purpose, a joint devotion to bring an end to injustice, to bring an end to poverty."

That August, CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid observed in the Los Angeles Times that LBJ was "making no little plans at a time when the landscape is filled with men crying out that everything ought to be smaller: government, budgets, foreign commitments—and dreams."

Goldwater, meantime, said poverty was a minor problem, resulting not from lack of opportunity but from "low intelligence or low ambition."

LBJ won the election easily, and managed to pass numerous lasting antipoverty programs, including Medicaid and Head Start. The Vietnam War soon sapped the nation's budget and curtailed Johnson's efforts. The persistence of poverty to this day in a land of plenty, and its prevalence among African-Americans, isn't a result of the war on poverty's failure, but on the failure to address poverty head-on since.

Johnson's success wasn't due to a magnetic personality. "While President Johnson has extracted a lot of birds from a lot of trees, he has never yet been accused of charming them out," Sevareid wrote. He was, certainly, far more experienced in passing legislation than Obama, and a genius in the use of power.

Was LBJ also dealing with an especially compassionate electorate in the 1960s? No, he wasn't, according to Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, authors of the 2010 book Who Cares? Newman and Jacobs studied public opinion polls on poverty from the 1930s on, and found that Americans have never cared much about the plight of the poor. "The War on Poverty wasn't spurred by public opinion," Newman and Jacobs wrote. "It was forged by a leader willing to move out ahead of his constituents."

Where is the leader willing to do that today?

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