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September 20th, 2012

If You’re Running for President, Poor People Don’t Matter


A boy waits with this father for food distribution at a church in Washington, D.C (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Last week, I realized poor people don’t matter.

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.

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • Eileen Caldwell

    Perhaps everyone who states that government should not be part of the solution should detail exactly what they are doing on a personal level to fight poverty. I know that way more is needed than my monthly stints at the soup kitchen and donations of food to the pantry.I am happy to pay taxes to support my neighbors in need.

    Where are the jobs that support a family?Not enough of them in my area.

  • Chris

    Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical Centesimus Annus talked about how the government is not the solution to poverty for a number of reasons. One is that gov’t takes the human compassion out of charitable giving making the person nothing more than a number. He also talks about how gov’t programs like this discourage charitable giving because people think that that is what welfare is for. Here’s a good quote,

    “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the welfare state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.”

    So its true that our catholic faith teaches us to be charitable, caring and selfless, the acts are to be accomplished through true compassionate caring–not by a government that has a ticket system and yells “NEXT!” as you wait in line for assistance.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Swiftright-Right/100002904084914 Swiftright Right

      Seams like a weak understanding of Cantensimus Annus esp since its crammed full of stuff like

      “A workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children. “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice”

      “When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenceless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government”

  • Kerry

    It’s so sad that people seem to believe that most of the poor are just shiftless, lazy minorities who want to rob them of their hard earned, holy dollars that God obviously wants them to hang onto by hook or by crook and spend on enhancing the luxuries in their own lives. You have to be so completely out of touch with reality–the reality of the poor–to believe those things. Private charity is in no way able to keep up with the needs of all the nation’s poor, uninsured, disabled and homeless. Sure, I could perhaps go to my church with a request to pay a utility bill or something like that, but what if I need months of chemotherapy and radiation as well as surgery for cancer? Is the church going to cough up a check for THAT? Is ANYONE? No, of course not. SO, those people are left to die. In my state, you have to make less than $800 per month for a family of 4 to qualify for medicaid. My husband’s disability income, which is $1,600 a month, renders us twice too rich to qualify. That left him waiting two years with a serious, deadly disease without medical care while we waited for his Medicare to kick in. What kind of law is that? That if you get disability, you have a two year wait for medicare? Obviously you cannot work and gain insurance that way, and you cannot purchase a private policy if you have a pre existing condition. The ONLY option is to get on the state’s high risk pool, which has ENORMOUS premiums of around $1,000 or more per month and provides ONLY catastrophic care, after a very large deductible–no coverage at all for dr visits or prescriptions. Does that sound like an adequate “safety net” for the poor?

    As for “work for welfare”, it IS a trap, just as the other poster noted. Especially for those with kids. They are sent off to do “busy work”, i.e., usually things like raking leaves in the park, picking up trash, etc. Just things that make the “decent” folk feel better about being “robbed” of their hard earned money to help these disgusting leeches. Of course, they are working for such low wages they cannot afford to pay for even the lowest, cheapest lifestyle, and they are thereby detained from trying to find REAL work. If they DO find real work it is likely going to be unskilled labor that pays minimum wage, but they then lose their childcare subsidy and have to pay hundreds a week for daycare for several kids, which completely eats up their paycheck and then some.

    When I worked full time at Barnes and Noble 10 years ago, I was paid $6.50 per hour–until they announced that to save money they were taking everyone to $6.00 per hour instead. If I didn’t miss a minute of work, my weekly net pay was $240. My daycare cost $80 a week. That left $600 a month for me to live on with my child–and that’s IF I didn’t miss a moment of work. But I DID, because I had an unreliable very old car, a sick husband, a special needs child, and was sick myself but unable to go to the doctor because I could not afford the insurance at work.

    THAT is what poverty is like.

  • Max

    Too many people who are able to work simply chose not too. I don’t mind one bit giving up money for someone who is (really)disabled, too old or someone who’s had a bit of bad luck and needs my help to get back up, but for me to work as hard as I do and have to give up my hard earned money for some who refuse to work is not acceptable. It’s not fair and to me it’s stealing. People who feel they are entitled to have what others have but refuse to work for it is simply unfair. Romney’s statement is exactly what is going on in our country. He knows the one’s who want the free stuff(like the free phone LOL)will not vote for him.

  • Steve Martin

    Good intentions and 1st stage thinking have led to a lot of suffering and pain.

    We need to look around and see that socialistic ideas are unsustainable.

    There’s no perfect, utopian system. The system that has served this country for so long and so well is being abandoned, and we will pay a dear price for our utopian dreams.

    The bigger the govt. the smaller the individual.

    I value freedom. And in that freedom, I will serve my neighbor.

    – theoldadam.com

  • Angie

    Mark, you hit the nail on the head when you said “…as a practicing Catholic, it is very clear what the church teaching is on this in that there is room for debate on how we solve the problem of poverty. There is no room for debate on issues of life and religious liberty…”

  • Me

    well there is no real separation of church and state. when i go to the food pantry at the church, i am required to provide my state benefits card. the church collects this information, which i have uncomfortable feelings about.

    additionally, catholic charities is contracted to the state – as it does bill and collect payment from medicaid and medicare. that makes catholic charities an agent of the state. i do believe they should NOT be collecting any grants or benefits from state and should not be allowed to bill and collect.

    i see no real separation of church and state, since i participate with BOTH entities.

  • Mark

    Interesting, but not surprising, that the press has been all over Romney’s comments, but you haven’t heard a peep about Obama preaching redistribution. Romney understands that those that pay $0 in income taxes aren’t going to be swayed by his proposal to broaden the tax base.

    We are very near the tipping point in this country – if we don’t change course we will very soon run out of “other people’s money”

    Further, as a practicing Catholic, it is very clear what the church teaching is on this in that there is room for debate on how we solve the problem of poverty. There is no room for debate on issues of life and religious liberty…

  • Me

    i’m a taxpayer – i pay sales tax! almost $40 per month in sales taxes. that might not sound like a lot, but it is still paying taxes. even my internet service is taxed!

    when the american people figure out that they don’t need to be rich, they’ll figure out that the poor don’t need to be poor. why can’t a company be satisfied with $200K per year profits – why are they determined to be $200M profits?

  • Jodi

    Meant to say “though stated terribly”!!!

  • Jodi

    Romey’s quote which I’ve seen all over the media this past week was in response to a question regarding voters Romney is trying to sway to his “side”, to vote for him rather than Obama. His point, though not stated terribly, was a valid one: Why would those paying no taxes vote for someone who wants to end that? Romney was merely saying he would not try to sway those voters to vote for him. When we get to a point where the majority of our population is not paying taxes, and we’re very close, how on earth do we maintain that?

  • Maryanne

    So many times these forums turn into rants. It is refreshing to read thoughtful comments!! The issue is very complex. With thoughtful people, without an axe to grind or blame to throw, working on solutions perhaps something can be done.

  • Bill

    There are times when we not only ignore the poor but condemn the wealthy. It is not wealth that is the problem but the love of money (1 Timothy6:10). In the USA even some of the poorest are much wealthier than the poor throughout the world.

  • msw

    I absolutely agree with you. Those in poverty need to have a voice – they need to have someone advocating for them as well as teaching them how to advocate for themselves. I also agree that neither candidate is addressing this issue head-on (as they’re ignoring many marginalized populations). I believe that, in the case of President Obama, race is a major influence in how and what he can address.

    I recently read Toure’s book “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” in which, among other things, Toure discusses the challenges for Black politicians who have to ensure that they are viewed as “American” above all else. He discusses the game that Black politicians have to play, including the game of coding so that Black Americans recognize and accept Black politicians but so that others (mostly whites) can accept Black leaders (and aren’t fearful that a Black leader will only fight for Blacks). Thus, Toure states that Obama, as a Black leader, canNOT campaign on poverty (in comparison, John Edwards, as a white leader could). Toure says that Obama has to use policies to assist those in poverty rather than speaking about it outright.

    All of that said, I do believe that President Obama’s actions show that he cares about those in poverty and other marginalized populations: health care reform, LGBT rights, legitimizing ways for undocumented youth to find work/get an education, expanding “Promise Neighborhoods” (program based on Harlem Children’s Zone in which non-profits build comprehensive services for families in low-income neighborhoods), etc. (In comparison, candidate Romney’s words – especially recently – suggest that he doesn’t care about those in poverty.)

    So, my argument is multi-faceted: 1) Let’s work to build and improve discussions on issues of race, power, and privilege, and then 2) Let’s force our leaders to talk about those in poverty (and other marginalized populations). And, while we’re working toward that, let’s work together to help marginalized populations advocate for themselves.

  • frank

    People that receive public assistance need to perform some type of work for this public assistance they receive .

  • Doug

    Exactly my feelings with regards to Obama and Romney. I struggle to support Obama because of his attack on religious freedoms. I struggle to support Romney because of his blatant disregard for how his comments about the poor seem so callous. Under Obama’s leadership, I fear we will have to stop providing care in Catholic hospitals should his administration require them to perform abortions or provide abortion enducing medications (like he is requiring Catholic institutions and individuals to participate in through insurance).

    Unfortunately, it seems that we, as Archbishop Chaput puts it, are destined for “hell” no matter how we vote.

  • Sue

    Why is it necessary for the government to intervene? Why is it their job? We ourselves need to reach out to help the poor – volunteer in their community, help out at their schools, reach out to their seniors – each do our part. Waiting for the gov’t to fix it is a convenient excuse to not get involved ourselves. It’s not the government’s job to fix poverty – it’s the community’s job to “be their brother’s keeper”.

  • Me

    i have a saying, and it may have been spoken by someone else before me. i expect not all people will understand or agree. it goes like this: to rule the people, you must live as the people.

    it makes no sense to have a man in a leadership, authoritarian, presiding position of control, command or guidance if he is outside of the realm of humanity’s greatest sufferings and needs. if he (or she) has not experienced, they cannot understand. if they cannot understand, they cannot advise – they lack the ability to guide and navigate ways up and out. in effect, all they manage to do is keep down and out. it is a form of condemnation and NOT salvation.

    if i say, “this is what i need” and i am told “it doesn’t work that way” or “we don’t have the resources” then you’ve only contributed to and compounded my troubles, my problems, my grief. i will lose, i will give up, i will break down and deteriorate … so poverty is NOT to be translated as a person’s “laziness” or “unwillingness” to go get out there and work and live, and THRIVE. there are innumerable obstacles which DO SO PREVENT people (keeping the down and out down and out!). these systems of support do so very often provide “minimal at best” and even sometimes “half-assed will do”.

    in my own personal experience, in the of massachusetts, i had sought college education while on unemployment benefits. as a single mother with 3 kids, i needed day care support. at the time in that state, it was POLICY that they only provided day care support to people who were WORKING (a mom with kids WAS working on a college education) and not to students. i appealed to the department of social services director for consideration, where i informed – if you take the day care away, i will have to drop out of school, i will lose my unemployment, i will be back in your office tomorrow for welfare cash benefits while i look for work, and because i’m looking for work – you’ll give me back the day care support. their policy effectively structured a TRAP that i couldn’t advocate my way out of. i just did NOT have that power and authority.


  • Debbie Thompson

    If the Christians in this country truly acted as Christians, we wouldn’t need so many govt. programs to help the poor. WE are the ones that are to take care of them. (And I point the finger at myself also, since I need to improve in this also.)

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