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I've e-mailed both campaigns, asking why their websites ignore poverty. If I ever hear back from the Romney campaign, I'll let you know.
Yesterday, I got this response from Ben Finkenbinder, midwest regional press secretary for the Obama campaign:
"From day one, President Obama has been fighting for policies that give everyone a fair shot and the opportunity to succeed. That's why he passed the Recovery Act, which helped keep 1.3 million African Americans above the poverty line in 2010 and why he pushed for the payroll tax cut, job training, education and health care reform. We know we can't return to the same Republican policies that Mitt Romney is trying to sell of 'you're on your own' economics if we're serious about rebuilding an economy where everyone gets a fair chance to succeed."
This is campaign rhetoric, of course, as opposed to an answer to the question I posed.
Campaign websites typically list "issues," and those issues are an expression of the candidate's priorities—or, at least, what the candidate wants voters to see as his priorities. Romney's 14 domestic issues include Courts and the Constitution, Energy, Gun Rights, Health Care, Human Capital, Immigration, Regulation, and Tax. Obama's seven domestic issues are Jobs and the Economy, Education, Energy and the Environment, Equal Rights, Health Care, Taxes, and Women's Health. Under those issues are brief discussions of the struggles of the middle class, working families, small-business owners, consumers, same-sex couples, and people with disabilities and with preexisting conditions.
Why isn't poverty mentioned? It's the nation's most virulent preexisting condition. And why is there no mention of racial inequality—poverty's partner in crime—along with Obama's plan to tackle it?
I realize Obama needs the middle class more than the minority poor, who are smaller in number, turn out in low percentages, and can't afford to contribute to his campaign.
But Lyndon Johnson also needed the middle class when he was running for president in 1964, and, as I observed last week, he managed to make poverty a key issue in his triumphant campaign against Barry Goldwater.
Poverty was an American crisis, Johnson said, a crisis important enough to merit a national drive to combat it—a "war on poverty." LBJ stressed poverty's inordinate effect on blacks. The nation's poverty rate then was 19 percent. By 1969, largely because of Johnson's war on poverty programs, the rate had dipped to 12 percent. Poverty then stepped to the rear of the bus as an issue, and by 1983 the rate had climbed back to 15 percent. It fell in the prosperous 1990s, reaching a low in 2000 of 11 percent. But it has risen steadily since, and now is 15 percent again, its highest rate in 18 years.
And the national rate hides poverty's unremitting disparate impact on minority children. The imbalance between African-American kids and white kids is even greater than the three-to-one figures I cited earlier. As a 2010 Urban Institute report points out, African-American children are seven times more likely to be persistently poor—poor at least half their childhood—than are white kids (37 percent versus just 5 percent). Moreover, in 1965, about a quarter of black children lived in single-parent families; two-thirds do now. And far more African-American kids today have parents with felony records, making the family's climb out of poverty less likely.
The Obama campaign's response to my question highlighted the president's efforts to give everyone a "fair shot and the opportunity to succeed." For decades, presidents have been emphasizing equal opportunity for blacks as opposed to the loftier goal of equal results. "Equal opportunity" plays well with middle-class voters. When little changes, the failure can be blamed on blacks who didn't seize their "opportunity." As Johnson understood, the focus on opportunity also ignores history.
"Equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough," Johnson said in a commencement speech at Howard University in 1965. "Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in—by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings." For blacks, this stunting was the result of "the devastating heritage of long years of slavery, and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice." For the "breakdown of the Negro family stucture," Johnson said, "white America must accept responsibility."
Largely through Johnson's efforts, blacks in the 1960s were finally being granted the civil rights that whites had always enjoyed. But those rights, like "opportunity," were not sufficient, the president said. "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." Americans needed to also put their money where their mouth was, Johnson said, to pay for programs that attacked poverty and its causes. "We will broaden this attack in years to come until this most enduring of foes finally yields to our unyielding will," he vowed.
This was a different kind of opportunity—one for the entire country: "It is the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American nation."
But the unyielding will soon yielded to the most enduring foe. And so the opportunity Johnson spoke of—the opportunity not just for blacks but for the entire nation—remains, nearly half a century later. Maybe one day another president will refocus the nation on it.