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Poverty: The Conversation We're Not Having

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This year, we're about to begin again one of the most sacred acts of a democratic country -- the election of our next president. Ads are sprouting up, the familiar posturing is once again on our screens, billboards, newspapers and websites. The last time we performed this ritual, we were a country swept up in the idea of hope and change -- the idea that when all seemed grey, there was a light. As the old adage says, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It turns out that's especially true if you're one of the 20.5 million Americans in poverty right now.

Even more, this year UNICEF released a report stating that the U.S. had the second-highest level of child poverty in the developed world. Only Romania ranks higher. The second highest in the developed world! If anything, this shows us that, just as some of us lost nothing in the recession, some of us gained nothing in coming out of it -- namely the poor.

Nevertheless, this isn't a topic we're used to hearing much about, especially from the candidates. Visit Romney's campaign site and you'll notice his focus on spending, immigration and defense. Visit Obama's campaign website to review the issues and you'll find his priorities around job creation, taxes and reviving the auto industry. No mention of plans to reverse course on the epidemic of poverty that dug its teeth deeper during the recession and won't let go.

I expect more from any candidate running for president. When Obama first ran, poverty was a cornerstone of his campaign. He cut his teeth as a community organizer here in Chicago, seeing the devastating effects of poverty on the south side. When he ran for president the first time around, he focused heavily on the issue, using phrases like "eradicating poverty" and "working together" to cut poverty in half in 10 years. He visited communities like the ones he organized as a young man, offering hope that things could be better. This campaign there's little to no talk about hope for the poor...

This year, Romney is our alternative. Forget it. His hack-and-slash approach to social safety net programs would leave those in poverty with nowhere to turn. His budget proposals would require massive cuts to programs like social security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to balance the budget. This shouldn't be a surprise, though, coming from a man who said to CNN that "I'm not concerned with the very poor. We have a safety net there." (http://youtu.be/lShAGXOFuQc) That leaves us in an interesting place -- with a lot of talk about the super rich and the middle class, and a whole lot of silence when it comes to the poor.

Which leaves me with one question -- how can it be that we as a nation aren't having this conversation? How can we accept the fact that we're sweeping more than 20 million people, those who are suffering the most among us, under the rug?

I can't accept it, so I'm changing that fact.

I'll speak for the poor, the abandoned, the sick and the shunned. My organization, Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest, serves more than one million people in such dire circumstances around the world each year. For 125 years, we've honed a recipe for success. It's one we can implement here and abroad, if we can accept the simple fact that we're all in this together and can find the courage to stand up for those who aren't able to do so for themselves.

It's a deceptively simple approach -- a hand up, not a hand out. Poverty seems so messy, so intertwined. That's really not the case. It's human nature to want better for yourself -- for your children and their future. No mother or father wants their children to be born into that complex web of failing schools, drugs and gangs. No family wants to live without jobs or dreams for the future. What they want is a way out and a little support -- a way to reach for more, and they will pull themselves up.

That's exactly what we as a nation must do to solve this crushing problem of poverty.

At Heartland Alliance, we do this by offering people the four building blocks of a stable life -- housing, health care, jobs and justice. We start with housing -- it's the most basic of human needs. From there, we offer mental and physical health care to ensure people are healthy and provide job training to help them enter the work force. For those who are fleeing wartorn countries for a new life here, we offer them legal services, and a chance at justice in their new homeland.

If our approach to poverty has taught us anything, I'd argue it's this: you can't solve it by addressing one problem or one need. Poverty is an interwoven set of problems and so must our solution be -- interwoven, integrated, holistic and, ultimately, respectful of the human life at the center of it.

If you remember nothing else as we move into this election cycle, I ask you to remember this -- the math doesn't add up. We've spent so much time stoking the fire of the one percent versus the 99 percent. The "regular people" versus the "heartless billionaires." It would be nice to think that it's as simple as that, but it's not. Today, we have the one percent, the 99 percent and the rest. The rest have no voice. So please, as you consider the candidates this year, do your research. Seek out information on their track records in addressing poverty and, for the sake of all of us, as you go into that booth, don't leave the rest outside.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.