Heading toward the presidential election, through three debates, neither candidate uttered the word "poverty." That's sad and tragic, and while this omission is a lousy reflection upon both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it's also a lousy reflection on mainstream U.S. society, at least in political terms.
In such a close election, it would likely be political suicide for either Obama or Romney to speak with any sympathy toward people most in need. There would be a backlash, and accusations of "big government" and even "socialism" from the other side. Obama also is branded as "the food stamp president," although he speaks rarely about increasing food aid during times of economic recession.
Both candidates harp on uplifting the "middle class," which somehow has transformed to include families making up to $250,000 per year. Every rare once in a while, I've heard Obama add that he aims to uplift the poor into the middle class. But only every rare once in a while.
Making matters worse, the Associated Press reports that as census data continues to be amassed (the Census Bureau remains active in between the every-decade counts), the poverty rate is soaring toward 15.7 percent, the highest since the War on Poverty started during the middle 1960s. Based on my memories of the idealistic mid- and late-60s, if there had been presidential debates back then, poverty most certainly would have been on the agenda.
So why has poverty become a blind spot in our general political discourse? Some critics will say it's because of frustration at lack of progress, because the War on Poverty has been a failure. After all, we've spent all this money, and one in six families still is officially poor -- for example, an income of less than $23,000 for a four-person household. I disagree; I'd hate to think of how things would be without the various War on Poverty programs, at least the ones that have survived and that have not been stripped bare.
Other critics will assert that a culture of dependency has been created. Any of us who are honest must admit we have seen some individual examples of this, but too many of us ignore what activist Peter Edelman described as a "tidal wave" of minimum wage jobs. The vast majority of households in poverty are headed by the working poor. I don't understand why the hard-hearted among this fail to see this.
Amid all the analysis, I personally observe and sense a compassion deficit. I hate to say this, because it makes me sound holier and more caring than thou. Still, I'm only being honest. When Romney's "47 percent" comment was unveiled, falsely implying that nearly half of Americans are "takers" who rely on government while not paying taxes, the first reaction among national pundits was that this revelation would severely harm his campaign. My own reaction, to the contrary, was that the 47 percent remark would actually help Romney among the population's resentful and bitter element of people, and it seems that's been closer to the truth.
Most people I encounter are courteous, kind individuals. So why is our politics so spiteful, that neither candidate will even risk talking much about uplifting our brothers and sisters (and our children) in need? To tell the truth, I'm stumped.