Elections 2012: Don’t Expect a Political Debate About Poverty

Presidential candidates are keen on talking about “the middle class.” It’s a steady theme from both challenger Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

One reason for that is the middle class is experiencing a lost decade, falling backwards in wealth as well as income. (More about that in a future post.)

But what about the poor?

A year ago the Census showed the rate of poverty as unchanged – standing at about 15 percent. According to the Pew Research Center: “Among Americans who identify as lower class ... 84 percent say they had to cut household spending in the previous year, 64 percent had trouble paying bills, and 45 percent say they had trouble getting medical care or paying their rent or mortgage.”

But those numbers are deteriorating.

Talk show hosts Tavis Smiley and Cornel West say a new report shows that poverty is the worst it has been in 50 years. “These new Census numbers will underscore what we’ve been saying for a long time – poverty is the new American norm,” said Smiley. “The time is now to force poverty on the agenda; our leaders can’t simply continue to be quiet on this issue.”

Smiley and West are holding town halls in six states, presidential election battleground states.

“We’re putting the spotlight on our precious fellow citizens who don’t have access to a decent job, decent housing, and decent healthcare,” said Dr. West, an educator, author and rapper. “We want to hear solutions that can be duplicated and adapted in communities across the country.”

The tour began last year on the La Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin. “Were we learned about the plight of our precious indigenous Native Brothers and Sisters,” said Dr. West on his show. Smiley said that’s when they decided to hear more about the challenges of Native housing issues.

Last week in Arlington, Virginia, the Poverty Tour 2.0 listened to several experts, including Mellor Willie, Navajo, executive director of the National Indian Housing Council in Washington, D.C.

“What’s interesting about the statistics released in the report is that Native Americans weren’t even mentioned, when our poverty rates are almost two times the rest of the United States,” said Willie. “The poverty situation in our Indian communities is very real, third world like conditions.”

Willie said he grew up on the Navajo Nation where he saw first-hand this poverty gap. “In my community 30 percent of the folks don’t have plumbing in their homes. I remember distinctly a lot of my classmates coming to school and they went home to homes that didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have water.”

Another effort to add poverty to the election discourse comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Sterling Speirn in a blog post last week said the country cannot end child poverty without addressing race. “America has an urgent need to address escalating child poverty, a circumstance that will severely limit the life outcomes of future generations,” Speirn writes. “What’s clear is that the level of child poverty will have grave implications for America’s future. Unless the nation improves the quality of life for children, the next generation won’t be prepared to carry the torch and sustain our democracy. And, in addressing child poverty, America must recognize that race is as big a factor – if not more significant – than economics.”

What can we do?

Speirn points to a number of efforts. One he mentions: “Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, has articulated a common vision of social justice work, where communities of color work together on shared challenges such as HIV/AIDS, early and adult education, affordable housing, environmental protection, and ensuring that U.S. economic policies address the disproportionate pain the economic downturn has inflicted on communities of color.”

The Census report, the Smiley-West poverty tour, and the spotlight on poverty and opportunity, all are pushing for a broader discussion of poverty in this election cycle. But will any of the political candidates hear that call?

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.