No candidate wants to discuss them...neither major party even woos them...and most Americans would just as soon forget them. Who are they? The 46 million Americans living in poverty. The forgotten. The invisible in this election.
In this seemingly unending political campaign, we have heard these words uttered dozens of times in the recent debates: “the middle class”. But there is one group that is rarely mentioned by either party, and never with any affection – it is those at the bottom of the economic ladder. The poor among us. They still remain the invisible Americans.
The reasons are fairly obvious. To start with, they likely vote less than other demographics. They provide little if any campaign financing. Their voices are muted in the halls of Congress, because they have virtually no lobbyists, and few advocates. But beyond that, they are a traditional anathema to conservatives who for decades have characterized them as unfairly feeding off the public trough, or somehow manipulating government payments they do not deserve, as dramatized by the fictional “Welfare Queen”.
Consequently, for conservatives, there is little need to pay attention to this group, except to continue to oppose programs that might give them aid. Indeed, this is the group imbedded in that oft mentioned “47 percent” that Romney admits is invisible…at least to him.
Sadly, the Democrats have avoided being too aggressive in their overt support for the poor as well. The same dynamics apply as above: not many contributions, less voting, and fewer advocates. Worse yet, the Democrats are intimidated by the Republican’s negative characterizations of what are labeled “entitlement programs” for the poorest among us – thus believing that too active support might turn off voters from that vaunted “middle class” each party is wooing.
At any rate, while the poor are mostly now ignored, or ironically criticized for their desperate condition, perhaps it is worthwhile to look at a few facts – with the hope they will again be seen in this election.
The overall poverty rate stands at 15 percent, statistically unchanged from previous years. Last year, the official poverty line was an annual income of $23,021 for a family of four (barely above full time minimum wage). By total numbers, roughly 46.2 million people remained below the poverty line last year, the highest in the more than half a century that records have been kept.
So who are most of these folks? Contrary to the image of the “Welfare Queen”, they consist largely of seniors living on limited income…students starting out careers…the disabled…and those in our society with steady work but performing less skilled jobs. Many are returning veterans still unemployed.
The Republicans have blasted Obama policies as the cause of this tragic situation – the fact is, it is part of a trend that has been going on for decades, and has resulted in a damaging mal-distribution of wealth and income in America – and it goes well beyond the simplicity of merely “creating more jobs”. Census figures reveal that from 1979 to 2007, the income of the top 1 percent grew over 275 percent, while the income of the bottom quartile in that same entire period grew a tiny 18 percent. The top 10 percent of Americans now earn 42 percent of all income – leaving just 58 percent for the rest of us. The bottom quartile now takes home less than 5 percent of all wages paid. Since1982, the ratio of pay of chief executive officers to pay of the average worker has risen from 42:1 to 301:1.
There are numerous studies of this phenomena, but beyond a doubt, the long term trend in our country has been the steady concentration of income among the top income groups – while income for other economic segments has stagnated or decreased. Conservatives rail that the poor pay no Federal income taxes (though they do pay lots of taxes). Of course they don’t: they haven’t the income!
While the income disparity between the very rich and those classified as “poor” is becoming more pronounced, an even greater disparity is growing on the issue of “wealth” (i.e. net worth measured by assets less liabilities). In an incredibly revealing report by the Congressional Research Service (An Analysis of the Distribution of Wealth Across Households 1989-2010 dated July 2012) the study reported: “…the top 1 percent accounted for a little more than a one third of total net worth in 2010. …the top 10 percent accounted for a disproportionate share of 74.5 percent of total (national) wealth.” It further noted: “net worth has become more concentrated in recent decades.” The bottom 50 percent of households in our country own an astoundingly meager 1.1 percent of our nation’s wealth!
These significant shifts in income and wealth certainly deserve a mention in this election, if not proposed actions by the candidates, for several reasons. First, helping those less fortunate is a moral, ethical, and even religious issue. Secondly, helping those at the bottom of the ladder with needed programs helps us to be a stronger more healthy society, and aids in lifting families out of poverty. Finally, providing more resources and disposable income to lesser income groups makes for a much more robust capitalism, which is a “bottom-up” economic system. It at least deserves discussion.
But beyond that, the bottom line is this, as quoted by many notable men and women over the years: “A society is measured by how it treats its weakest members”. So, how do we intend to treat our invisible Americans?