Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Election Year, Poverty Swept Under the Rug

The politicians and the press, for the most part, will not cover poverty in this country. If you hold your breath waiting for that to happen, you're just going to die. -- Bob Herbert, former New York Times columnist, speaking at the Spotlight on Poverty Opportunity Forum.
Herbert is right. Although 88% of Americans believe that poverty should be an issue in the presidential campaign, media coverage of it is pretty much limited to whatever hateful outburst erupts from a GOP candidate on any given day. Newt Gingrich got plenty of press for suggesting poor kids work as janitors in their schools. Yet, major news organizations didn't fall all over themselves racing to a crumbling school in a poor neighborhood to actually talk to the kids to find out what they thought. As Bob Herbert points out, there have been no hard-hitting investigative pieces on faulty plumbing or wiring in public schools. Just a lot of "wow, can you believe what Newt just said?" from the so-called liberal media, who just can't get enough of wingnut psychopathology.

Today it was Mitt Romney's turn to generate some red meat buzz.  The MSM was faux-shocked when he allowed how he is not all that concerned about "very" poor people, because they're already protected by a social safety net. The point he was most likely trying to make is that you have to be literally in the gutter before qualifying for Medicaid, so where's the beef?  Or, more likely, Romney is not concerned about the poorest of the poor because they have a tendency not to vote. The corporate stenography slant: OMG, what will come out of this guy's mouth next? The numbers, the polls, the numbers! 

Since the Democrats have transformed themselves from being champions of the poor to groveling before Wall Street to get that all-important campaign cash, President Obama doesn't talk much about poverty at all.  He is more inclined to characterize the indigent as the "struggling middle class", not the nouveau-poor. The backdrops of his campaign speeches always include well-dressed, well-fed "folks" right out of sitcom suburbia. He did not involve himself in last summer's progressive caucus "Poverty Tour" with  Cornel West and Tavis Smiley.  When he does go to Detroit, it's to visit an auto plant, not an inner city neighborhood. When he causes massive traffic gridlock during his romps to Harlem, it's for canoodling with the slumming rich. Even the "cheap" seats at his recent Apollo gig went for $100.

(Actually, he did visit a ghetto last year. But it was Rio de Janeiro's notorious slum, as a photo-op during a "free" trade mission/family vacation with the wife and kids. You see, despite the fact that almost half of all American families are just a paycheck or two away from dire straits, poverty does not and cannot exist in the greatest superpower on earth).

The Obama Version of a Poverty Tour: A Foreign Country

It was not always thus. As recently as the 2008 post-election transition period, the Obama team dared use the "P" word.  There is a whole page still up devoted to the subject of poverty.  In those days, the president was a "lifelong advocate for the poor."  President-elect Obama wanted to prevent prison recidivism by providing substance abuse counseling for ex-cons. The reality? The War on Drugs is bigger than ever, minority youths are filling what are increasingly private prisons at record rates and black unemployment is well above 16%.  He promised to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011. Oops! He vowed to increase affordable housing for poor people. Instead, he cut neighborhood block grants and home heating assistance.  He did this without the Republicans even asking. He offered.

Meanwhile, nearly half of all children live on the brink of poverty and one-quarter actually do live below the poverty level. Data released by the Census Bureau last year put about one-third of Americans at the poverty level.

Stephen Gray of Time wrote about last summer's pre-Occupy poverty tour --

"Poverty and poor people are an afterthought" said (Tavis) Smiley. "For many folks in this country – politicians – they’re disposable, they’re invisible.” Poverty rarely stirs powerful political forces. There’s no major Washington lobby for the poor. There are few major Congressional figures with the stature of Ted Kennedy or Daniel Patrick Moynihan who’ve made poverty issues central to their political identities. The term “poverty” has taken on baggage, evoking in some images of the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” introduced by Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. Earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a study questioning the plight of the nearly 44 million Americans whom the Census Bureau categorizes as impoverished, but also own appliances such as air conditioners and TVs.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne was also a panelist at this week's poverty forum.  "In politics" he said, "I think there are two obvious coalitions. One is when the middle class allies with the folks below them, and one is when the middle allies with the folks above them."

Since neither political party identifies with the "lower folks" Occupy has served to fill the vacuum. Republicans and Democrats both love to pontificate about aspiring to that American Dream of consumerism, property ownership and moolah. The OWS movement has stepped up to talk about social injustice. It has brought the homeless and poor population to public attention, and that does not sit well with the political elites of either Wall Street-serving party. Mainstream coverage has carefully and dutifully not concentrated on the poverty aspect.The camps have been broken up by paramilitary thugs, and so the extreme poor and homeless are back where they came from. Out of sight, out of mind. 

(You can read the entire transcript of the poverty forum, as well as watch the video, here.)

Update: the president talked to struggling homeowners in Falls Church, Va today about how his plans for mortgage relief are better than Romney's. The median family income in Falls Church: $97,225. I rest my case.


DW2000 said...

A footnote....this "folks" thing is becoming an epidemic. Two quotes in your article....Three "folks."

Keep up the great work.

Denis Neville said...

“We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” - Dorothy Day

Fifty years ago I read Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States.

Harrington wrote, “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them. They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen.”

Harrington said that the poor needed “an American Dickens” to make them visible.

Today the conservative image of the poor is that their poverty is a result of their own failures.

Harrington wrote, “Here is one of the most familiar forms of the vicious circle of poverty. The poor get sick more than anyone else in the society. That is because they live in slums, jammed together under unhygienic conditions; they have inadequate diets, and cannot get decent medical care. When they become sick, they are sick longer than any other group in society. Because they are sick more often and longer than anyone else, they lose wages and work, and find it difficult to hold a steady job. And because of this, they cannot pay for good housing, for a nutritious diet, for doctors. At any given point in this circle, particularly when there is a major illness, their prospect is to move to an even lower level and to begin the cycle, round and round, toward even more suffering…Each disability is the more intense because it exists within a web of disabilities. And if one problem is solved, and the others are left constant, there is little gain.”

“Society must help them before they can help themselves,” argued Harrington.

Fifty years later we should be angry and ashamed to live in such a rich nation in which so many remain poor.

“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on them---will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn't rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn't even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it… The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.” – Eduardo Galeano, The Nobodies

Valerie said...

Don't you just LOVE Bob Herbert! He was the best of the best opinion writers at the Times and what a loss to the “paper of record” and democracy in general when one of the few journalists willing to call it like it is has left the paper!

I don't think, unless someone has a relative who is really struggling or has experienced it themselves, people understand poverty and understand that that most of us are slipping into poverty as we write. Those dependent on Social Security and Medicare will likely see their benefits cut in the next couple of years, whether Obama or Romney is “voted” into office. Those with decent jobs have the very real possibility of losing their jobs before they retire - and when that happens they will have to take a far worse paying job just to make ends meet. Most Americans are just a pay check or two (if that) or a major illness away from losing their homes and life as they know it. Yet people are either oblivious, thinking it won't happen to them, or they believe the politics are so corrupted that they passively await their fate.

Too many stupid people out there, so willing to be brainwashed – stupid religious zealots who vote the way their corporate churches tell them to vote, stupid Fox watching Republicans who somehow are convinced that what is good for the corporations will somehow trickle down to them, stupid Democrats (OK I have finally said it!) who despite the proof that Obama is nothing but a corporate shill who will only govern in a way that benefits his corporate masters and will sell them out at every turn will obediently go to the polls and vote for him.

Whether we get Obama or Romney in 2012 – a false choice if there ever was one - more and more of us will be slipping into poverty ourselves and the world my ten year old daughter knows will be a very different place by the time she is an adult. I have to give those participating in the Occupy Movement – hat tip to Anne and Neil who have driven miles and miles to regularly take part – credit for having the courage of their convictions and not taking the sell-out of our democracy lying down. The great journalists of the blogosphere, Occupy and the very few politicians trying to fight on our behalf (people like Baird, Sherrod Brown, Liz and Bernie) are the only lights on the horizon.

Kat said...

I miss Bob Herbert. He was a lonely voice at the NYT.
I can't help contrasting Herbert's work with what passes as liberal at the NYT now.
And, analogous to this shift is Obama's declaration that "everyone have a fair shot ". Do you see what he did? Once the Democratic party offered a "fair deal" and the strengthening of worker rights via the repeal of the Taft Hartley act, increases in the minimum wage, and government efforts to promote full employment. Now it is just a "fair shot". What does this mean? Well, it means more tax credits to businesses to hire and of course, the ultimate kick the can down the road: more job training and education for those damn 21st century jobs. We must be nation of strivers! Never mind there are many STEM grads that are out of work. Clearly they are not the most excellent of the bunch. Have they really demonstrated to employers the "added value" that they provide?
Of course, this line of reason is exemplified best in one of Obama's favorite thinkers-- Tom Friedman. For Friedman "average is over". As anyone with half a brain can point out is simply not possible for everyone to be above average. So, maybe what he is saying is we need not concern ourselves with the average (and certainly not the below average). They do not need to earn a living wage. He has no use for those that might simply want a job--not a career. You know-- the people that work for a living rather than live for work.
Private life, home life is devalued.
Today, here we have Mark Bittman who finds out to his surprise that poor people actually do cook! Not because he actually knows any poor people. He read it in a study. He does so worry about the poor. Their food choices are so wrong, they're getting so fat, and what they really need is some government measure to nudge them to the path of righteousness. Wouldn't a "fat tax" be just the wonderful? Isn't Michelle's pet cause the greatest thing?
This is what we have. We once offered some solutions that helped people to live their lives with some security. Now we offer solutions that say Hey! If you just adopt the mores of the upper middle and upper classes you might have a "fair shot".

MLK said...

As long as half the discretionary federal budget is devoted to militarism, poverty will continue to be swept under the rug.

Will said...


Yesterday I was going to post a similar comment (not nearly as well-written as yours) about the frustration I constantly feel with the utter stupidity\gullibility of our fellow citizens. I finally decided to delete it, figuring I'd spare everyone my depressing thoughts on the subject.

Well, I'm glad you decided to share yours for 2 specific reasons: 1) Now I don't feel so alone; and 2) It gives me an excuse to post the link to the great George Carlin's "American Dream" video!

DreamsAmelia said...

Yes, legal tender has never been very tender while it follows the letter, not the spirit, of the law. The American Airlines bankruptcy is going to put one more pock-mark in our land littered by Kamikaze capitalists exploding their golden parachutes in the faces of thousands of laid-off people and unfulfilled pension promises.

It pained me to read cruel criticism (on right wing blogs, of course) of Bob Herbert. But here is a reader comment that he would appreciate, I'm sure, and the type of comment that would have had 300 instant "Recommends" before paywalls made the Times a place where once a plurality meandered but now a cranky majority of 1 percenters hang out.

San Francisco

When a company signs an employment contract, it is a legal and moral obligation, whether is includes wages or benefits. It is a MUTUAL contract. If I go into a dealership and buy a car, and sign the contract for a certain price, I can't just go home and decide two years later that the price was "bloated" and that I don't have to pay it. In the case of pensions, all companies should be required by law to set aside enough money to pay the contract value of the pension in full, and the bankruptcy laws should be rewritten to exclude pension funds. If a company defaults, it should be considered theft and subject to criminal penalties. Yes, we all understand crass immorality and unconscionable greed and self-interest. For some people it is part of their make-up, an unconscious habit of seeing their fellow men and women as just disposible objects or less. This mind set allows people to view worker's wages and benefits as welfare handed down by the privileged wealthy who are the only people of real value. When people believe that self-interest should be the primary motivator of individual economic behavior, the belief often becomes a easy tool that allows people to feel good about their own miserable self-interest and lack of compassion. Is there any other country on the planet where so many people worship money and power to the degree they do in America, and use that faith to justify the smallness of their own souls, although I'm sure they don't see themselves in that light?

Feb. 1, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.
You recommended this 5

Kat said...

Do you ever comment on Mr. Kristof's columns. he has become increasingly strident in knocking labor-- and today he wrote this:
Yet political parties are not suicidal. When they overreach, they (often) learn. The Democrats did that when they embraced a Southern centrist named Bill Clinton. The British Labor Party was marginalized when I lived in Britain in the early 1980s, but Tony Blair transformed it and revived it about 15 years later.
He needs a swift kick in the pants--he is so stealthy. I'm not up to the task though.

Denis Neville said...

I, too, miss Bob Herbert, who used his NY Times column to hammer President Obama, the Democrats, and the Republicans for their neglect of the poor and their responsibility to help those who are most needy.

“The poor, who have been hurt more than anyone else in this recession, don’t stand a heartbeat’s chance in this political environment. The movers and shakers in government don’t even give a thought to being on the side of the angels anymore — they’re on the side of the millionaires and billionaires.” – Bob Herbert

In his last column for The New York Times, “Losing Our Way,” Herbert wrote, "This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences."

Franklin Roosevelt, in his second Inaugural Address, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Four years ago, many of us held the hope that a new Age of Roosevelt was coming, projecting Obama as the Second Coming of FDR. Barack Hoover Obama is no FDR.

“A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” - Demosthenes

Karen Garcia said...

Re Kristof, I do comment on his stuff occasionally. Will probably start commenting more on general issues-oriented op-eds and articles in The Times, because the election year is just bringing out the usual stale identity politics drivel in both the columnists and the commenters. "How do we loathe Mitt? Let us count the ways and ignore everything else."

Denis Neville said...

@ Kat - Kristof's columns

Jumping to the tune of his NYT corporate media masters? Or too much time in the bush?

Nicholas Kristoff, "Waiting for Mitt the Moderate," NY Times, Jan 05, 2012:

“If we do see, as I expect we will, a reversion in the direction of the Massachusetts Romney, that's a flip we should celebrate. Until the Republican primaries sucked him into its vortex, he was a pragmatist and policy wonk rather similar to Bill Clinton and President Obama but more conservative. (Clinton described Romney to me as having done "a very good job" in Massachusetts.) Romney was much closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush....

“So, in the coming months, the most interesting political battle may be between Romney and Romney. Now, do we really want a chameleon as a nominee for president? That’s a legitimate question. But I'd much rather have a cynical chameleon than a far-right ideologue who doesn't require contortions to appeal to Republican primary voters, who says things that Republican candidates have all been saying and, God forbid, actually means it.”

Contrast Kristoff’s “cynical chameleon” with Matt Taibii’s “robotic Mormon financier looks like a walking OCD diagnosis.”

I'll take Taibii's analysis.

Valerie said...

Thanks @Will –

I posted that exact comment – changing “stupid” for “non-thinking” in order to make it past the censors - and got 12 recommends on Gail Collins article! Big surprise. The rest of the comments, other than Karen's, seemed to be all about how terrible Mittens is and how terrible it will be if he is elected President. He has come out and said he doesn't care about the poor - unlike Obama who has simply shown us he doesn't care about the poor. But hey – I shouldn’t nit-pick at least our side is pretending like they care – a little.

I used to really look forward to reading the Times Opinion pieces and the reader comments that followed. Now the comments all sound like they come from the Obama 2012 headquarters media releases. I am convinced they have people posing as different people posting a good number of those comments.

Kat said...

@Karen-- this is true. They had a piece-- something along the lines of "what is a pro choice Republican to do?"
umm.. I don't know. You like most of the other stuff they stand for? How about vote for Obama?
A moderate republican is defined as one who is pro choice. Not anti war or pro civil liberties, or certainly not anticorporatist (yes, such creatures exist).

Denis Neville said...

Mittens Exposed! Paul Krugman, “Romney Isn’t Concerned,” today’s NY Times

“Paul Krugman is tired of trying to reason with you people.”

As Karen said, “Keep up the great work, Mitt!”

Paul Krugman, also!!!

Denis Neville said...

“You poor make me sick!”

Lucky Ducky, the poor little duck, who’s rich in luck…”All’s Fair in Class and War!”

Kevin Drum, “Soaking the Poor, State by State,”

“You have heard, perhaps, that rich people in America are egregiously overtaxed. And the poor? They're the lucky duckies! Why, 47 percent of Americans pay no taxes at all"


“Many poor and elderly Americans pay no federal income tax, but they pay plenty of other taxes. There are state taxes. Those include state income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and fees of various kinds. How progressive are state taxes?

From the Corporation for Enterprise Development, Tax Burden by Income for the fifty states, “In the worst states, the poorest 20 percent pay five to six times the rate of the richest 1 percent. Lucky duckies indeed. There's not one single state with a tax system that's progressive.”

James F Traynor said...

Out of the Bronx - When private equity bought the bakery, Ian Frazier, New Yorker, Feb. 6. It's really about how people get poor and stay poor in this truly fucked up country. It's about Stella D'oro Biscuit Company, less so Archway, and the incredibly ignorant Midwest and that godforsaken patch of blighted earth called South Carolina. But mainly about the damage private equity companies do as they wreak havoc across the economic landscape. Private equity companies like Bain. Out of the Bronx, like me. Were I younger, It's where I would start the hunt when the shit finally hits the fan.

Denis Neville said...

Bank of America acts as a de facto immigration agent

Bank of America called the cops on Luis Martinez, an undocumented worker, who came from Mexico in 1993. “Martinez washed dishes. He worked his way up to short order cook and then supervised other kitchen workers. He married, had American-born children, bought a house, paid his income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes… Martinez would have loved to have traded on his hard work for a chance to establish legal residency in the U.S., but without immigration reform, there is no way to do that without returning to Mexico [self-deportation per Mittens].

“Martinez had been a Bank of America customer since 1996. One day 11 months ago, he got a call to go to his branch…to discuss his accounts. It was so routine, Martinez took his 6-year-old daughter with him. When he arrived, the police were called…and he found himself in a New Mexico jail facing deportation.”

“He was fired from his job for his unexcused absence. He fell behind in his Bank of America mortgage payments because of his lost wages. The bank was going to foreclose on his house. Bank of America is still holding his money.”

"I've lost everything I worked for, they've taken everything," said Martinez.

His deportation case is in June 2013.

This is the same Bank of America that the Securities and Exchange Commission has repeatedly allowed to avoid punishment for fraud.

Mr. Martinez goes to jail, while the BOA banksters use their limitless “get-out-of –jail free” cards. What’s wrong with this picture?

DreamsAmelia said...

@Valerie-- I do not think it is possible to fathom or under estimate the effect of the paywall at the Times--the comments to the article announcing the paywall were 9:1 to the effect of "adios--there's too much free news out there, I won't be paying for the Times"---We are truly left with the elite of the elite, maybe the 0.00001% who comments, which skews the opinion drastically. (My 8-yr-old daughter likes to poke fun at OWS by saying, "We. Are. The. Zero Percent!")
There's no need for OFA or Obama operatives to pose as various people-their work is done for free by the cheesecloth of the paywall filtering out all the riff raff. The only people left are those who don't mind paying good money to go running off a cliff with the rest of the sheep.

But your original comment does hit home---hopefully our daughters will surprise us with a resiliency we can't imagine. The fact that Facebook could go from zero to 100 billion in 8 years is emblematic of a feeding frenzy of capitalism that places undue profit on one idea, one individual, and capitalizes on selling privacy as a kind of snake oil for advertisers. The number of flawed premises in the whole proposition boggles the mind.
You don't need to know calculus, let alone even trigonometry to set up a corporation, issue limited shares, and later make an initial public offering (IPO). It's dumbfoundingly easy to become stupidly rich as a stupid person. It seems boring...
whereas it gives me hope that apparently large swaths of Egyptian youths are steeped in the prose of Jack London, who, in the age of the Robber Barons of the early 20th century, was emblematic of the rise of socialism--his collected works-- The People of the Abyss, The Road, The Iron Heel, and others relentlessly expose the intentional inequalities of "civilization." He poured his heart and soul into an exhortation to make a civilization that works for everyone--

So if it is stunningly easy, in our current system, for a few people to become insanely rich, that very simplicity holds the key that it could be stunningly easy to create a world where no one went hungry, homeless, or jobless. We just have to make sharing become as hip and en vogue as being a greedy capitalist is today. Once the will is there, the way can be found with the internet, which could re-write all the rules of commerce--there's no need for a monopoly on all transactions with VISA, Pay-Pal or of our media with Clear Channel. Anyone, theoretically, could set up a bank with the internet. Once you get a few altruistic alternatives set up as a challenge to VISA, the ruthless capitalistic model could vanish quickly...yeah, a little utopian, but, hey, challenging the King of England and establishing these United States was a pipe dream once, too...

Anonymous said...

Facebook's meteoric rise is a result of capitalizing on the very essence of Capitalism itself: the craving and addiction of ego. The genius of it is that the craving can NEVER be satisfied, just like the futility of Capitalistic consumerism/materialism. They both serve the same illusory master.

Instead of a trophy home with fancy cars and filled with expensive items to show off to peers as evidence of success and worthiness, Facebook provides a self-glorifying photo gallery/museum/memoir/scrapbook/trophycase/mirror all wrapped into one, a Shrine to Self which is open for devotion 24 hours a day. It is a brilliant business concept - there is nothing more addictive and guaranteed of unremitting attention.

Zee said...


That paywall doesn't seem to be working out so well for the New York Times. It hemorrhaged $40 million in 2011:

BTW, thank you for posting the comment from TK in San Francisco. Employers who offer pensions should be required by law to fully fund them, and be held accountable by some government agency for doing so.

James Singer said...

"Employers who offer pensions should be required by law to fully fund them, and be held accountable by some government agency for doing so."

Held accountable? No forced. Property confiscated until the fund is satisfied.