Editorial: to lower poverty rate in the US, we need to talk about it first

An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News suggests there is currently a big stumbling block in dealing with record poverty levels in the United States: no one is talking about it.

One argument that has gained currency is that the poor aren’t really poor, because they have refrigerators and cell phones. Here’s another: The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression doesn’t qualify as “circumstances beyond their control.” Instead, people who lose their jobs and can’t find others just aren’t looking hard enough. And the most shocking of all: To punish their parents, it’s OK to let children go hungry and suffer the health and educational ramifications of malnutrition.

That’s how some people think of poverty – if they think about it at all…

Yet politicians of all leanings just don’t want to talk about it, almost certainly taking their cues from the populace at large. In a recent study, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting looked at six months of national political coverage and found that poverty was the subject of less than 0.2 percent of the stories – that is, only 17 out of 10,489.

In order to do something about poverty, we have to be able to recognize it. An organization sponsored by the Center for American Progress called “Half in Ten” (www.halfinten.org) has set a goal of halving the U.S. poverty rate in 10 years by putting it back on the national agenda. First step: “updating” Americans’ understanding of poverty, beginning with the way it is calculated. The current method – used for nearly a half-century – multiplies estimated food costs by three, which doesn’t take into account increased expenses such as housing, transportation and child care – and gives a much brighter picture than the actual reality.

Half in Ten is urging Americans to “tweet” the moderators of the presidential debates using the hashtag #talkpoverty to challenge the candidates on how they would reduce poverty in their first 100 days in office.

The modern era: fighting poverty through Twitter.

I’ve noted this issue before; the major political candidates don’t talk about poverty. They may talk about hardship and economic troubles but they tend to stick to middle-class dreams and helping Americans join this aspirational group. According to the New York Times, the word “poverty” was spoken at a rate of 3 per 25,000 words by Democrats and 5 per 25,000 words by Republicans. In contrast, the phrase “middle class” was used at a rate of 47 per 25,000 words by Democrats and 7 per 25,000 words by Republicans.

At the same time, I wonder if Joel Best’s writings about the possible problems with declaring war on social problems, such as poverty, apply here. How do you keep the momentum of a fifty year war going? How do you know when the US has “won” the war on poverty? One advantage of declaring war on a social problem is that it can draw media attention because of the implications of war. Yet, it sounds like the media isn’t paying much attention either.

One thought on “Editorial: to lower poverty rate in the US, we need to talk about it first

  1. Pingback: William Julius Wilson on what has changed in the 25 years since “The Truly Disadvantaged” was published | Legally Sociable

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