Here’s something you don’t hear the presidential candidates talking about: the increase in poverty in America. On President Obama’s weekly trips to swing states and in what seems like daily debates among Republican candidates, it never comes up that the numbers of poor and hungry people in this country are growing and that too many of them are children. And if no one is talking about that fact, you can be sure no one is acting on it, either.
When the Census Bureau published figures in September showing that Americans living in poverty had hit the historic high of 46.2 million, members of both political parties quickly questioned the numbers. Because traditionally the census measures only income and doesn’t take into account programs such as food stamps or tax credits aimed at alleviating poverty, critics cried that the results were distorted. That’s what all of the stories have been about — how to count poor people, not how to help them.
So the counters came up with a different measure that included those additions to income and that more realistically gauged expenses, including health care. According to the new number, 49.1 million poor people live in what is still the richest country on Earth.
Under the recalculation, some people who receive food stamps and tax benefits do rise out of poverty (defined as an annual income of $24,343 for a family of four!), while others, especially seniors with high medical costs, fall into it. But Republicans don’t want to talk about the issue, because they don’t want pressure for more spending on those poverty-reducing programs. Democrats don’t want to talk about it because they fear the man in charge — President Obama — will take the blame.
Not talking about poverty doesn’t make it go away. And information is essential for action. Most Americans are horrified when they learn that one in five of our kids goes to bed hungry every night. That’s not the country we celebrate as the world’s greatest nation. To change that awful statistic, people — especially the people running for president — need to talk about it. They could make a difference if everyplace they went, especially as the holiday season approaches, they told the voters they are endlessly talking to how to help those children, both in the short term and in the long term.
There’s plenty of nutritious food in America, but many families don’t have access to it. Food banks and feeding programs work heroically in cities and rural areas all over the country to address the discrepancy, but they are having trouble staying ahead of the need. Many report that their former volunteers are now their clients as families find it hard to stay ahead in these tough economic times. Single mothers, unsurprisingly, are having the toughest time of all, and many of them choose to pay the rent or buy gas to get to work rather than buy food for themselves.
Their kids can get free meals at school, but the moms go hungry.
Suppose that everyplace they went, the presidential candidates talked about hunger in America, really drew attention to the issue. Better yet, suppose they told their audiences and their TV viewers how to help? They could put up food bank phone numbers and addresses, tell people how to donate and volunteer. Think how refreshing that would be! Instead of reciting mind-numbing stories about how they overcame humble beginnings, they could help others do the same. Instead of ranting about how awful things are for the middle class, they could try to keep more people from falling out of it.
And then they could address the longer-term solution of early childhood education. To break the cycle of poverty, Democratic and Republican governors alike have embraced research showing it makes all the difference if you get to kids early in life. Save the Children (where Cokie is a trustee) works with those governors to provide such education through private/public partnerships. Kids who participate are much more likely to stay in school and become productive, tax-paying citizens rather than drains on the public trough either through welfare or, most expensive, jail.
So let’s hear it, candidates! Repeat after us: “There are too many poor people in this wonderful country. You can do something about that. Here’s how _, and here’s what I’ll do as president to fix it.” And let’s hear it, voters! Hold those candidates accountable. You know you don’t want our kids to go hungry in America.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.