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Sara Weinberger: Why can’t pols take poverty seriously?


Poor people seem to be invisible at best or demonized at worst. A recent study done by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, found poverty barely registers as a campaign issue. The results of their study, conducted between January and June of 2012 revealed that just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive way, with almost no campaign stories substantively discussing poverty. ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, NPR’s All Things Considered, and Newsweek ran no campaign stories substantively discussing poverty.

When statistics on poverty for 2011 were recently released, the country breathed a sigh of relief because the anticipated rise in the poverty rate didn’t happen, as the poverty rate remained “flat.” Yet, in actuality, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate rose from 15.3 to 15.9 percent. That is 2.3 million additional people who found themselves living below the poverty line of $23,050 for a family of four.

Statistics mask the actual number of 48.5 million people living in poverty in the United States in 2011, or the fact that about 20 percent of all children live below the poverty line. Yet this doesn’t seem to be newsworthy enough to be mentioned, let alone explored in depth by the candidates, whose rhetoric is geared to the “middle class.”

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget will cut Medicare and Social Security and will be balanced by slashing the safety net even further. His budget makes nearly $1.4 trillion in cuts to Medicaid over the next 10 years — 34 percent — and repeals the Affordable Care Act, which provides subsidies that enable about 15 million people to obtain health insurance, for a total of about 45 million people who will be unable to access health insurance.

Ryan’s budget also cuts $134 billion from food stamps, which is enough to kick 8 million to 10 million people off the program and cuts $166 billion from the portion of the budget that houses our education, training, employment and social services funding. And to make matters even more grave, Ryan’s budget has about $5.3 trillion in cuts, while Romney’s budget is looking to shave $7 trillion.

As a Democrat, I’ve expressed my frustrations with Elizabeth Warren as well as Barack Obama’s failures to make mention of the need to end poverty in their speeches.

I’ve mentioned this to friends and colleagues and their response goes something like this: “If Democratic candidates advocate for poor people, the Republicans will attack them; the independents won’t vote for them, and they will lose.” I respond by pointing out that at the recent Democratic convention, speakers boldly proclaimed the importance of gay rights, including gay marriage, as well as women’s reproductive rights, including the right to abortion. Republicans have and continue to go after Democrats who support these issues, so why the fear about advocating for poor people?

Their answer: “The GLBTQ community votes. Women vote. Poor people don’t vote.”

Is the latter a stereotype or a statement? Admittedly, in spite of searching for information, I was unable to find valid statistics about the number of poor people who voted in the 2008 presidential election. I did discover that, according to the U.S. Census, there was an increase of 5 million voters from the 2004 to 2008 election, including about 2 million more black voters, 2 million more Hispanic voters and about 600,000 more Asian voters.

Lack of access to information, transportation, apathy and hopelessness, as well as all sorts of legal and illegal efforts to deny poor people access to voting, have been offered to explain the perceived lack of voter turnout among poor people.

Yet shouldn’t we all be concerned that more than 48 million people in the United States do not have the income to access basic human needs?

As a community, we readily fill our shopping bags with food to drop off at survival centers; we volunteer to serve meals at our homeless shelters; we go through our closets for winter coats and happily drop them off at Goodwill. These are all charitable acts, but they do nothing to reverse poverty or to keep the hole in the safety net from expanding.

As a Jew, I have spent the time between the recent holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur reflecting on how to be a better person. The liturgy that is read on Yom Kippur, when Jews traditionally deny themselves food as a means of repentance states, “… this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.” In other words, we cannot remain silent in the face of oppression.

I contend that all of us have a responsibility to our human family, including those among us who live in poverty. I urge everyone to let their candidates, regardless of political persuasion, know that the budget cannot be balanced by cutting programs that keep poor people from drowning. The resources to succeed should be available to everyone. Ending poverty is an important subject that needs to be part of our political debate.

Sara Weinberger is a professor of social work at the Western New England University and a member of the Northampton Human Rights Commission.

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