Poverty looms over campaign
Friday , July 27, 2012 - 12:44 PM
Lots of things are still very wrong with the U.S. economy, but this is one that should be getting more attention: Census figures for 2011 are expected to show the poverty rate jumping to its highest level since the 1960s.
Essentially, all the anti-poverty public policy of the last 50 years — the war on poverty and the expansion of the social safety net, the massive private-sector gains spurred by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s — has been rendered ineffective by the meltdown of 2008 and the slow recovery.
The numbers will say the nation is at a 15.7 percent poverty rate, an unacceptably high number.
It matters. And it ought to be more directly discussed in the presidential campaign.
So much of the debate between left and right about the economy is focused on the middle class and on businesses. Both matter intensely to the health of the economy, and the best way to fight poverty is still by expanding opportunity. Businesses sell more products, hire more people and pay more wages. The middle class grows, and the ranks of the impoverished shrink.
But in relative terms, business has had a much healthier bounce-back from the recession than the rest of the economy suggests. The Dow hit 13,000 again in February (it closed at 12,721 Monday), which, although not matching peak housing-bubble levels, was a number not seen in four years, and corporate profits are soaring.
And yet many middle-class families find themselves plunged into poverty. Why? That’s the question the presidential candidates need to address. And they need to do it in a way that measures up to the complexity of the problem.
Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney continues to insist that taxes and regulation are the only measures by which companies assess their opportunities for growth. Implausibly, his economic plan would institute a flat 25 percent corporate tax rate, and he would preserve the Bush tax cuts in perpetuity. But if that kind of solution were going to preserve the middle class, it would already be doing so. Romney needs to widen the aperture of the GOP’s economic lens, to discuss more realistic ways that the economy can expand to put people to work.
President Barack Obama is closer to the mark, by far. His health reform, despite GOP histrionics, has several prongs that should expand insurance and lower the incidence of poverty due to medical catastrophe. His continued focus on ways the government can help stimulate the recovery — even through efforts like trying to keep college loan rates low — is helping middle-class families hang on.
But he has also narrowed his gaze to the short term — for instance, with his suggestion that the bulk of the Bush tax cuts be preserved for just one more year — and that thwarts the discussion about longer term, more fundamental economic policy.
This election should be about how American promise and opportunity get rejuvenated.
Talking directly, and in context, about the nation’s growing poverty has to be an essential part of that discussion.