10/11/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

The Candidates' Calculated Silence About Poverty

Centre College will be the focus of the nation tonight as the Vice-Presidential debate takes place on our campus. Unfortunately, one thing that has not been in focus is the issue of poverty. In fact, one of the most disappointing aspects of this campaign is that no one is talking substantively about poverty. The issue has been largely absent from the national dialogue.

The political conventions consistently emphasized helping the middle class, improving the lives of the middle class, tax cuts for the middle class. Someone should have put an empty chair on the convention stage to represent poor people. They were simply absent.

Here's one example: Bill Clinton's speech lamented the fact that pundits have focused on Paul Ryan's proposed cuts in Medicare, our federal health care program for the elderly, while ignoring his proposed cuts in Medicaid. Since Medicaid is our primary federal health care program for the poor, I thought, "Finally, someone is going to talk about poverty." Clinton went on to ask, "Why should you care about this?" And then he reminded us that Medicaid also finances nursing home care for millions of elderly middle class Americans and disability payments for middle class Americans. In other words: "Care about this because it's a middle class program ... not because it is the only source of health insurance for millions of America's poorest people." The speech was perfectly emblematic of the pervasive moral failure that has led to calculated silence on this pressing issue.

The Dimensions of Poverty in America

It would be a step forward just to put the issue on the table for discussion, especially in light of the recent Census Bureau figures that reveal a deepening national problem. More than 46 million Americans live below the poverty level -- about $23,000 for a family of four in 2011. That's 15 percent of the American population, a rate reached only three times since 1965.

Looking deeper into the poverty statistics, a category called "severe poverty" measures the number of Americans with incomes below one-half their poverty threshold. Twenty million Americans -- 6.6 percent of the population -- are experiencing "severe poverty." That's 44 percent of those in poverty.

In fact, income inequality increased to its highest level since the Census Bureau began measuring it. The top 20 percent of earners received 51.1 percent of the aggregate income earned in 2011. The bottom 20 percent received a 3.3% share. Over the past 30 years, tax policies and changing wage structures in the U.S. have redistributed wealth upward so that 40 percent of the nation's wealth is possessed by 1 percent of the richest Americans.

Further, we are the only industrialized nation whose poorest age group is children. Only 8.7 percent of our elderly are poor -- thanks in part to programs like Medicare and Social Security. But 16 million children under the age of 18 are poor (22 percent of America's kids). Thus, almost one-third of the poor people in the U.S. are children. And while more white people are poor than any other group -- 41.5% percent of the poor -- the percentages reflect another shameful family secret: Poverty affects 9.8 percent of whites, 25.3 percent of Hispanics, and 27.6 percent of blacks.

Somehow, we are no longer troubled by these realties. I'd like to see the debates prompt our leaders to respond to American poverty in terms of both policy proposals and values.

Finding Common Ground in a Polarized Debate?

What makes our national discussion so polarized is that conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have different analyses of the causes of poverty. Generally, conservatism has emphasized personal, behavioral and moral causes. In the name of personal responsibility, conservatives focus on early pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births, breakdown of the family, alcohol and drug addiction, irresponsible work and spending habits, dropping out of school, gang participation and criminal behavior. The corresponding solution is charitable programs on the local level that lead to moral and spiritual renewal, individual behavioral change and private initiative.

Liberals have emphasized systemic and structural causes. In the name of social justice, they focus on the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy with low-wage work for the unskilled, lack of affordable housing, health care costs and the lack of insurance, and entrenched class and race inequalities. The corresponding solutions are public or governmental changes that transform tax policy, foster employment with living wages and income support, build affordable housing, guarantee health insurance and prohibit discrimination.

Both sides grasp a key element of the problem in many cases, but without the other perspective, each analysis is reductionist. Each needs the other because the real lives of poor people are a complex combination of systemic and personal factors that must be addressed if political thought intends to be effective in addressing poverty. We need leaders who will offer a fresh political ethic that reconnects personal and social transformation and highlights creative public/private partnerships.

A government program probably won't change the life of an addict or restore a sense of self to an alienated gang member. But a recovering addict will end up on the streets if he can't get a job that will pay him enough to afford an apartment. So we need a renewed systemic focus on wages, benefits and affordable housing. But we also need relational interventions like mentorship and case management that can address personal habits where these may be a factor. If liberals are reluctant to talk about personal transformation, and conservatives won't talk about structural realities that require government action, we'll remain at an impasse that leaves both sides with tired talking points that are irrelevant, ineffective and even damaging.

Two Interpretations of Catholicism

Of course, causal analysis is often grounded upon an underlying foundation of beliefs and values. I'd like to see a debate question that addresses those foundations. The candidates debating tonight are both Catholics but have very different interpretations of that tradition.

The long tradition of Catholic social teaching focuses on the individual worth, inherent dignity, and personal responsibility of every human being, while also affirming that we are social beings, created for relationship. So our individuality is fulfilled in community -- a covenant community where members are responsible for one another and for the common good. Hence, Catholicism has emphasized a "preferential option for the poor" that evaluates policy in light of its effects on society's most vulnerable individuals.

Perhaps Catholicism can offer one way into the balance that is needed. The U.S. Catholic Bishops offered a strong critique of the cuts in Paul Ryan's budget as an abandonment of Catholic Social Teaching. They should be equally critical of Obama for the unacceptable growth in poverty and inequality during his presidency. However, their evaluation of Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, focused not on its effects on poor people, but on its provisions related to funding for contraception.

Congressman Ryan defends his budget proposal as an expression of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which balances liberty and equality by fostering decentralized responses to human need. But the bishops have pointed out that Ryan misses the spirit of the principle. In his interpretation, liberty trumps equality, decentralization becomes unlimited individualism and subsidiarity collapses into a free market ideology that abandons public investment in empowering solutions for those in need.

I'd like to see a debate question that asks the candidates to evaluate the 1996 Welfare Reform in light of the new poverty statistics and their deepest value commitments. Clinton's reform established time limits and work requirements in order to restore incentives and foster personal responsibility. But it neglected key systemic supports that his advisor David Ellwood believed must accompany time limits if the reform was to work effectively to reduce poverty and not just reduce welfare rolls. Catholic social teaching understands this policy as a separation of interrelated moral imperatives that must be held in tension with one another.

Of course, our public political discourse is more likely to employ the language of human rights. So why not ask the candidates, "What things do you believe are due to every human being simply by virtue of the fact that they are human? Freedom of speech, worship and assembly? Rights to food, housing, health care and employment? Further, how should the community structure the securing of those rights?" Wouldn't that be a fascinating and important discussion?

One wonders if anyone is listening to the voices of poor people in America. Hearing the stories of others may be one of the most important things we can do about the issue. Prior to the religious language of Catholic social teaching or the public discourse of human rights is the narrative of human experience, which is the most powerful and universal. As Catholic moral theologian Monika Hellwig says, "The idea of human rights is surely first shaped by the sense of violation. It has its origin in an existential scream of pain or deprivation. When we hear the scream, we know what it means not because we can explain it but because we can feel it. It is by the capacity for empathy that we know what it means. But we have to hear the scream first."

Perhaps that would do more to change our political discourse on poverty than anything.