With the exception of candidates bemoaning the number of Americans on food stamps and out of work, the subject of poverty didn’t get much of an airing during the presidential debates. When a coalition of advocates against child poverty asked President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney to lay out their plans in a Sept. 4 letter, they heard crickets.
On the eve of the second presidential debate, Obama broke his silence. Romney declined to answer, according to an e-mail sent to the coalition in late September. But Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan devoted an entire speech to poverty yesterday in Cleveland.
The advocates were not impressed.
When you read Ryan’s words and listen to his voice, you can’t help but respect his earnestness.
Today, 46 million people are living in poverty. That’s nearly one in six Americans — the highest poverty rate in a generation. During the last four years, the number of people living on food stamps has gone up by 15 million. Medicaid is reaching a breaking point. And one in four American students fails to attain a high-school diploma. In our major cities, half of our kids don’t graduate. Half.
In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We deserve better. We deserve a clear choice for a brighter future.
But the budgetary plans of Romney and Ryan are the cause of great concern. Their plans to slash federal assistance programs and turn some into block grants have anti-poverty advocates worried that the safety net would be shredded and put the nation’s future at risk.
“When we invested in the War on Poverty, poverty rates for children and seniors dropped significantly,” said Mark Shriver of Save the Children. “When we don’t invest in effective, cost-efficient solutions, the poor suffer. Budgets are blueprints for investments — or lack thereof. The Ryan budget speaks for itself and it doesn’t speak for the poor.”
Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus Campaign for Children, agrees, saying, “Chairman Ryan’s actions — spearheading a budget that cuts the Child Tax Credit, dramatically increases the number of uninsured children, cuts investments in child abuse and neglect prevention and response, cuts child nutrition, and increases out-of-pocket child care costs for working parents — speak a lot louder than his words, when it comes to addressing child poverty.”
“Instead of offering real solutions to lift more than 46 million Americans out of poverty and create an economy that works for all, Rep. Ryan stuck to conservative rhetoric that paints safety net programs as the problem rather than as the essential support for struggling families who fall on hard times,” wrote Katie Wright at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
“Poverty-fighting programs are not handouts — they are investments,” said Irwin Redlener, president of Children’s Health Fund. “Investments in the generation we expect to lead the continuing success of our country.” He went on to say, “Essential programs like the [Earned Income Tax Credit], the Child Tax Credit, the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit actually help fight poverty and help low-income working families make it to the middle class. But these programs appear to be on the Romney-Ryan chopping block.”
Ryan talked a lot about the role of community in combating poverty. But Redlener offered a bit of realism. “Even the best community organizations and faith-based initiatives and the extraordinary charity of Americans across the country,” he said, “can’t carry the brunt of eliminating poverty.”
Romney was caught by hidden camera trashing 47 percent of the country as “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” That’s an awful view of the people one hopes to lead, and it calls into question the sincerity of the Romney campaign and Ryan’s prescriptions to the problems he cares so much about.
Ryan attempted to undo that damage when he told the Cleveland crowd, “We are speaking to all Americans in this campaign.” Unfortunately for him, many Americans, especially anti-poverty advocates, don’t like the implications of what they are hearing.