Two reports issued the same day told of two appalling realities. One report on poverty was based on an AP survey. It found that the poor are getting poorer, and more numerous than at any time in the last half century. The other report from the Tax Justice Network found that the super-rich are getting richer, and they are squirreling their money away to the tune of tens of trillions in offshore tax havens that are far outside the reaches of the U.S. and other nation's tax collectors. Wealthy Americans are amply represented among the offshore tax evaders. This money could bankroll business start-ups, business expansion, fatten federal and state tax revenues, and create thousands of new jobs. This would do much to blunt the steady march upwards of those that slip into the poverty ranks.
The devastating impact of poverty on American economic life is well known. It wastes the talents, energy, and productive potential of many in the work force. In some communities, it increases crime which overburdens the police, the courts, and prisons, and makes doing business in these areas more costly. It strains the health care, and the welfare system. This results in a bigger tax drain on the middle-class. It sharply reduces the ability of thousands of consumers to purchase goods and services. This further crimps business growth and reduces government tax revenues.
Yet, there is not a faint mention of the word poverty on the presidential campaign trail. There's a reason, in fact several reasons, for this. One is trying to define who is poor. Apart from the visibly homeless, and those rummaging around on skid row, and in some of the poorest and most recognizable urban inner city communities, one can easily be considered working, or even middle class, one day and the loss of a job, and tangible income, can quickly dump that person into the poverty ranks. This makes the poor even more diffuse, and hard to typecast. They cut across all ethnic, gender, and religious and even political party affiliation lines. There are low income persons in the South, Middle America, and the rural areas, that are conservative, and vote GOP.
The other reason is that the poor do not have an advocacy group to go to bat for them with lawmakers such as labor, civil rights, education, environmental, or abortion rights supporters have. This further increases their political invisibility. The only time the poor had loud champions was a brief moment during the 1960s when a small band of anti-poverty groups and organizers got the attention of the Johnson Administration. They shouted, cajoled, and actively lobbied LBJ for a major expansion of anti-poverty programs, funding, and initiatives to reduce poverty in the nation. But the anti-poverty crusade quickly fell victim to Johnson's Vietnam War build up, and the increased shrill attacks from conservatives that the war on poverty was a scam to reward deadbeats and loafers, and sharp budget cutbacks.
Another reason for the silence about poverty on the campaign trail is that the national economic and fiscal emphasis is on how to hack away tens of billions from spending on domestic and even the once sacred military programs. President Obama and GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney will fiercely arm wrestle over which one can best bring down the deficit, reduce spending, decrease taxes, and get rid of wasteful programs. They will also spar hard over how best to protect the interests of the middle-class. It's about votes, and a pro-middle-class, cut spending line, appeals to centrist, independents. Both Romney and Obama bank on them to be the path to or back to the White House.
The biggest reason that politicians dare not make poverty a political issue is that the existence of so many poor flies in the face of the embedded laissez faire notion that the poor aren't poor because of the hyper concentration of wealth, or worse, any failing of the system, but because of their personal failings. Surveys have borne this out. Even many among the poor are as apt as many of those in the middle-class, and the well-to-do, to self-debase themselves for their poverty. They blame it on their misfortune, bad luck, lack of education and skills, or alcohol, and drug problems. These are certainly reasons why some fall into poverty or remain chronically poor. They, however, are at best peripheral to the real cause of the poverty rise, and that's the control by a relatively handful of the bulk of the nation's income, resources and productive wealth.
The poor will continue to grow in numbers. But they are nameless, faceless, and voiceless. This insures that poverty will remain missing from the presidential campaign trail.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.