The State of the Union speech today will be scrutinized and analyzed based on the President's every word. But I am more concerned about what he doesn't say. All indications are that he will focus on growth and competitiveness and job creation. As the nation struggles to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, one can't argue with that. But why not marry that commitment with another to those who are suffering the most profoundly -- the 48 million Americans who live below the poverty line -- and may not be able to wait until job growth reaches them?
When Franklin Roosevelt gave his State of the Union Speech on January 11, 1944 he said: "We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people -- whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth -- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure." And this was in the midst of the all-consuming Second World War! I'd be surprised if President Obama doesn't make at least some mention of poverty and the toll it is taking. But the real question is whether he will back it up with an aggressive anti-poverty agenda as FDR did in the years before and after his speech. Unfortunately that seems unlikely.
The New York Times front page story today is on the battle lines being drawn between President Obama and the new Republican House Majority on budget decisions related to economic recovery. Most of it is speculation about how various issues like education, technology and infrastructure affect either party's political positioning with the independents and centrists deemed so pivotal to electoral success. Because those who are poor don't occupy that sacred political high ground -- and remember that 19 million of our fellow Americans now live below one-half of poverty meaning under $11,000 a year -- there is no mention of them or their needs by any of those quoted in the article, or by the reporter for that matter.
It's one thing to be on the losing side of a great debate. It's another to not even be included in the debate in the first place. Our nation's poorest are likely to remain voiceless except to the extent that those of us not constrained by the short-term and short-sighted imperatives of partisan politics can help their voices be heard. That is the challenge we must embrace in the difficult days ahead.
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