At the Values Voters Summit on Friday, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan whose budget was approved by the House with sweeping cuts to aid for the poor responded to new figures from the Census Bureau this week showing that 46.2 million Americans were living below the poverty line last year—a rate basically unchanged from the year before—but a rate not seen in this country in nearly 20 years.
Here's what Ryan had to say about Obama's record on poverty:
"The Obama economic agenda failed, not because it was stopped, but because it was passed. And here is what we got: Prolonged joblessness across the country. Twenty-three million Americans struggling to find work. Family income in decline. Fifteen percent of Americans living in poverty. Here we are, after four years of economic stewardship under these self-proclaimed advocates of the poor, and what do they have to show for it? More people in poverty, and less upward mobility wherever you look."
It's not the first time this election cycle that we've seen the right raise the specter of the poor. But poverty is raised not to offer prescriptions or remedies but to be used as a cudgel, as a means of playing on middle class fears of losing ground by suggesting not so much that they, too, could become impoverished but that the threat to their economic stability is the poor themselves, who are taking that ground from them.
Calling President Obama the "food stamp President" is not bemoaning the plight of those Americans who, in the wake of a devastating financial crisis have lost the means to put food on the table for their families, but rather, to imply that some "other" is living large, while the rest of "us" struggle. That said, we do know something about the people Romney relies on and what they believe about poverty.
Remember those Romney ads claiming that President Obama was gutting work requirements for welfare eligibility? Putting aside the point that as a policy consideration, work requirements should be loosened for welfare recipients—the claim was simply a lie.
But take a look at the source they gave for that claim. The Heritage Foundation from July 12th. As Mother Jones magazine reported the day before Ryan spoke, that July 12th Heritage post was co-authored by a senior research fellow at Heritage named Robert Rector. Who is Robert Rector? An opposition research group called the Bridge Project—affiliated with the liberal SuperPAC American Bridge—dug into Rector's past writings, and it turns out that this false claim that welfare recipients are somehow getting away with living an envious life of leisure was developed by a man, who has claimed welfare does not lift people out of poverty, that no one who owns a refrigerator should even be considered poor, and who once told the Washington Post, quote: "Is poverty harmful for childhood? I think not."
If you watched the Republican or Democratic conventions this year, you might be forgiven for believing poverty isn't harmful to childhood for there, we were regaled with stories of parents and grandparents, who overcame childhood poverty, lifting themselves out of it with nothing but hard work and dedicated effort. In few instances, did these stories even hint that these ancestors had any luck or help from their community that contributed to their success. Nor did we hear of how social mobility has diminished in this country since those grandparents supposedly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
The fact is it's increasingly harder in the United States to lift yourself and your family from poverty now than it was fifty years ago. And yet, in the midst of a Presidential Campaign where the economy is ostensibly the central issue of contention, we rarely hear poverty mentioned by either candidate. And according to a new report by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, less than one percent of the media's campaign coverage has addressed poverty in any way. That is, at least directly.
Consider this week's teacher's strike in Chicago. More than 25,000 Chicago teachers went on strike over a myriad of issues not the least of which are the teaching and learning conditions in Chicago Schools.
The strike exposed the battle lines between the corporate driven school reform movement and educators, fighting against high stakes testing and advocating for a more contextual approach to measuring school performance. Driving this battle is a desire to improve educational outcomes, which will supposedly improve economic opportunities for low income kids. To the extent that poverty and joblessness are mentioned in our political discourse it is always education, which is first—and often only, mentioned as the cure.
That prescription sounds intuitive, but what if its premise is wrong? What if Robert Rector is wrong, and poverty does, in fact, harm childhood? A study in 1995 found that the average low income child enters kindergarten with a listening vocabulary of 17,000 fewer words than that of a child of middle income. She can recognize only 9 letters of the alphabet as compared to the 22 recognized by middle income children
So if it's possible that the proposition that education fixes poverty is actually backward and that resolving poverty actually fixes many of our education issues then we have to consider whether our remedies for both are upside-down. We have to consider whether asking teachers to improve achievement in schools is even possible without first addressing the disadvantages poor children face on the first day of their school careers. And if no amount of privatizing education can fix our poverty problem, we also have to look at the actual impact on poverty that our other policies have.
So while the media largely ignore the implications of poverty in stories like the Chicago teachers strike, our political establishment has adopted an approach toward dealing with our jobs crisis, which is sure not to alleviate poverty, but to create more of it. Austerity plans and the potential of a grand bargain which may cut medicare and social security will certainly add to the ranks of the poor. Yet, we hear virtually no dissent to these policy proposals from the quarters of so-called serious thinkers in Washington.
How is this possible? How is it that with record numbers of people living in poverty and many more people rightfully anxious that they are on the verge of falling into poverty we as a society are providing no response, not even a rhetorical one?