I was spending some time in New York City — specifically Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I met with a friend for lunch at an Italian restaurant a few blocks from Central Park. We were in one of New York’s more posh neighborhoods, home to the wealthy who have the time and money to enjoy all that New York has to offer. After saying goodbye, I headed for the subway to travel up to the Bronx. I was off to Fordham University to attend an event on faith and humor with Stephen Colbert, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and the Jesuit author, Fr. Jim Martin.
A couple of wrong turns and I quickly realized I wasn’t in Manhattan anymore. I had never been up to Fordham’s Rose Hill campus before. (“Rose Hill” being the euphemism they use to divert attention away from “The Bronx.”) To be blunt, the Bronx is poor. It was hit hard by the recession and hasn’t recovered as quickly as other areas, and almost 28% of families there live below the poverty line. The contrast between the two boroughs was striking, and it caused me to think a bit about poverty on my walk to Fordham’s admittedly beautiful campus.
That’s when I realized poor people don’t matter.
That is, they don’t vote. They don’t work. They don’t give to political campaigns. And they don’t organize. So if you’re running for president, poor people don’t matter. As a result, poverty has been notably absent from the presidential campaign this year.
Talking about poverty
It’s not that there aren’t poor people around. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate remained at record levels in 2011, with 15% of U.S. households living with an annual income below $23,021 for a family of four. Throw in an unstable middle class, a widening income gap between the very rich and everyone else, and uncertain economic forecasts for the perfect opportunity to talk about poverty and how we as a nation might combat it’s corrosive effects on all of society.
But neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney wants to have that conversation.
Obama began his career as a community organizer, working with the poor in Chicago, working on projects funded in part by grants from Catholic organizations. A New York Times Magazine article from earlier this summer noted that Obama felt then that poverty was like a cancer:
“What’s most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it’s so difficult to escape,” [Obama] said. “It’s isolating, and it’s everywhere.” Addressing this kind of poverty was neither simple nor straightforward, [he] said. “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.”
You don’t hear President Obama saying much about the plight of urban poverty today. Political observers believe race and economics play a part. Middle-class white voters think that only minorities are poor and thus benefit from government-led anti-poverty programs (though there are actually a greater number of poor whites than poor blacks). And people don’t want to be told that they are poor. In America, a family bringing in about $50,000 annually identifies as middle class, as do people like Romney who are worth about four thousand times that. So some politicians shy away from calling poor people poor for fear of offending them and losing their votes come Election Day. So instead, Obama speaks often of those trying to move into the middle class, which presumably includes the very poor. It’s an interesting way of framing the challenge, but calling it like it is might be more worthwhile.
Romney, on the other hand, has said, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor — we have a safety net there.” He brings up poverty only to slam the president, and he writes off those he describes as the “47%” of people who are poor and feel entitled to assistance, because he’ll “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Romney probably doesn’t actually disdain poor people, but he is unable to understand them and thus unable to speak about ways to combat poverty.
Back at Fordham, the video introducing Colbert included a quote where he made his views on poverty clear:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, didn’t mince words either when asked about poverty earlier this month. He said, “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians.”
Fighting poverty isn’t sexy. There are no ribbon cutting ceremonies that come with infrastructure improvements; no awe-inspiring videos like with the Mars Rover; and, perhaps most detrimental to its cause, no big checks to political coffers for passing legislation.
But by ignoring poverty, it only gets worse. And while we can keep it out of sight and out of mind for a bit longer, Obama is right. Its growth will harm our communities, our nation, and our spirits. Voters need to demand that our candidates discuss poverty, and more importantly, take steps to combat it.