Why We Ignore American Poverty

More children in the United States live in poverty today than did during the Great Recession, according to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Roughly 47 million Americans currently live under the poverty line. To put this into perspective, the US’s relative poverty rate is 17.4 percent, compared to an average among OECD countries — considered the United States’ peer countries in level of development — of 11.1 percent. Our child poverty picture is even bleaker, with almost one third of American children living in poverty. Among 41 of the richest countries in the world, the US has the sixth highest child poverty rate according to a 2014 UNICEF Study, in spite of being the fourth wealthiest country within the study by GDP per capita.

One would think that given this crisis, poverty would be the talk of the town in Washington and beyond it, and yet the issue seems to be largely ignored in US political discourse. According to a study by The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, less than 1 percent of the news coverage by 52 major news outlets focused on poverty. When the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting examined the 2012 election coverage of eight major US news outlets, researchers found that just 0.2 percent of coverage dealt with poverty “in a substantive way.” And during the Republicans’ first televised primary debate of 2016 — which ran for almost two hours — the word “poverty” was mentioned 3 times, and the word “poor” was mentioned four more. In the first Democratic debate, while the word “poor” was brought up 13 times, the word “poverty” was brought up only 4 times.

Furthermore, too little has been done at the legislative level about poverty reduction. It is true that in early 2014, then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan came forth with a set of ideas, titled “The Path to Prosperity,” relating to poverty reduction. Though the prospective efficacy of these policies is certainly up for debate, the development was promising in that the issue was at least being addressed. But in practice, no legislation emerged from this focus. For example, in 2012, the only two bills in the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s anti-poverty legislative scorecard that actually passed the Senate were designed to counter emergencies, and the House that year passed a budget that cut into many essential poverty reduction programs.

Even when politicians on both sides of the aisle do address the issues of Americans’ economic struggle, they still miss the mark. Rhetoric often focuses on protecting the “middle class” or reducing rising income inequality (consider rhetoric surrounding the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent). Rarely do politicians talk singularly about the people at the very bottom of the economic ladder — those struggling the most. For example, Florida US Senator Marco Rubio, who proposed several ideas surrounding poverty reduction in early 2014, seems to have shifted his main focus to the middle class since he began his bid for the presidency.

"Rhetoric surrounding the “middle class” is much more inclusive and therefore more politically beneficial than addressing the poor head-on."

Many reasons exist to explain politicians’ reluctance to directly address the neediest. For one, rhetoric surrounding the “middle class” is much more inclusive and therefore more politically beneficial than is addressing the poor head-on. Americans not living in poverty are not eager to label themselves as impoverished, while many seem to think that they are a part of the middle class. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, people in every annual income bracket between $30,000 to $100,000 were most likely to identify themselves as “middle income.” Thus, when a politician talks of policies that will benefit the middle class, a huge portion of the electorate will assume that those policies will be of benefit to them; according to a Gallup Poll, about 51 percent of Americans identify as middle or upper middle class.

This phenomenon has shaped the prevailing campaign message House Democrats are expected to use in 2016; Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, Chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in the House, told Politico that House Democrats were “absolutely unified on three essential messages going forward: It’s middle class, middle class, middle class.” Interestingly enough, it is not clear that House Democrats are “absolutely unified” on this matter. Notably, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have expressed concern over this focused messaging on the middle class, saying the focus should actually be on the nation’s extreme poor. “We cannot forget that so many of our families are not middle class,” Representative G.K. Butterfield, Chairman of the CBC, told Roll Call in response to this new messaging focus.

Looking to the media can also provide answers as to why poverty is ignored to such a troubling extent. The aforementioned report from the Pew Center investigated why the media puts so little emphasis on this issue. The report suggested that media organizations shy away from covering the topic because they feel like they are at risk of alienating the wealthy consumers that they are trying to target who are not interested in that content.

In addition, low-income Americans simply vote at lower rates than does the rest of the country. This makes them less important to politicians than are the rest of the electorate. The voter turnout rate in 2012 for Americans making $10,000 yearly or less was under 50 percent, compared to a national voter turnout rate of 62.3 percent. Thinking cynically, this makes these voters less valuable to American politicians than are the rest of the electorate, making their prime issue of poverty even less important.

And even when poverty is discussed, the chatter often emphasizes urban poverty and fails to recognize that the poverty rate for rural Americans is three percentage points higher than the corresponding statistic for urban Americans. Multiple reasons exist as explanations, but one of particular interest surrounds our perceptions of those who live in rural areas. Americans harbor particularly negative views of the rural poor — especially in regions like the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains — giving them labels such as “hillbilly”. According to Lisa Pruitt, a Professor of Law at UC Davis, Americans label rural Americans as “uncouth,” “racist,” and “unsavory,” partly explaining why the very real issue of rural poverty is too rarely discussed.

There are opportunities for those in Washington to act if they would like stop ignoring this pressing issue. For example, in 2014, President Obama and Paul Ryan put forth proposals to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) introduced legislation to expand the EITC in 2015. Swift action is required on issues like this in order to put poverty back into the spotlight.

Looking back to how (if at all) the issue has been used in past elections, North Carolina Senator John Edwards made poverty the central issue in his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, and he was able to employ the issue to create enthusiasm for both of his campaigns before his future prospects as a politician came to a halt in the midst of a well-known scandal. Perhaps at some point another high-profile candidate will help bring the issue back — unhindered by a need to focus on the “middle class” for political expediency, but until then, the strategic benefits of avoiding talking about poverty will continue to keep it out of political discourse.

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About the Author

Jordan Kranzler '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.

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