The Neglected Issue of the Invisible Poor
Poor people don’t vote. At least, they don’t vote in proportion with their share of the population. And they certainly don’t “vote” in the sense that politicians would notice, by attending thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners and contributing to their campaigns.
And that’s all you need to know about why the poor are invisible in Presidential elections, or really any elections, in this country. Mitt Romney uses the poverty rate as an attack line and that’s about it.
To listen to Presidential debates and stump speeches, you would think there’s a guaranteed wage in the country at around the median income of $50,000, because that’s the lowest wage that ever gets mentioned. We hear about the middle class but not the working poor. We hear about Medicare and Social Security, which everyone gets, but not Medicaid, the safety net program for the poor. We hear about welfare in the context of “other people” getting benefits that the hard-working middle class does not.
The only policy prescription to fight poverty in three debates, which came in the context of a gun control question, was Mitt Romney telling people to get married, because “if there’s a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.”
You get the sense that we need to exhume Michael Harrington and have him write a sequel to The Other America, to spark attention on this topic. But I doubt that would do it. It’s the 50th anniversary of The Other America, and we’ve seen plenty of tributes. Monica Potts wrote this incredibly good in-depth study of one of the poorest counties in the country, in Kentucky. The source material already exists for a consciousness-raising moment. We haven’t had it.
We haven’t had it because of a couple reasons. One, the internalized shame of being poor:
And yet, said Harris-Dawson, many poor people have an interesting thing in common.
They don’t consider themselves poor.
“We actually came up with a list of people on welfare and went door-to-door, and do you know what? The majority of people said they were not poor,” said Harris-Dawson, who thinks the candidates may be aware of this phenomenon.
He said people who were out of work framed it as a temporary condition related to the distressed economy or some other factor.
“Being poor has been so demonized. Being poor means being on ‘Jerry Springer.’ That’s what it means nowadays, and who wants to be on ‘Jerry Springer?'”
The second reason for the invisibility of the poor is rampant inequality, which insulates those in a position to ameliorate the situation. The rich build gates and walls, whether physically or intellectually (their media diet helps them to block out unpleasant information), and the poor stay on the other side.
I suppose the answer a politician would give to all this is the standard “rising tide lifts all boats” line. The IMF, of all organizations, had a great line about this: “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.”
One of the reasons the messaging on Obamacare failed so badly is that, if you really wanted to sell it, you would have to note its benefits to poor people, mainly through the expansion of Medicaid. You can’t specifically help the poor and say it out loud in this country anymore, I guess. We had a war on poverty, and poverty won.
Photo under Creative Commons license by Leonard John Matthews