Missing from the presidential race: The one in six Americans living in poverty

As metaphors go, the guerrilla photo op of Paul Ryan posing at an Ohio soup kitchen is about as clean as the pots he was pretending to scrub; the image of him pitching in is as misleading as the way he talks about the people that kitchen serves.

Since the House budget the congressman is famous for — so spare it won him a spot on the Republican ticket — would eventually cut Medicaid spending in half, he was brazen even showing up there.


Paul and Janna Ryan at an Ohio soup kitchen on Saturday (Associated Press)

Undeterred by the realization that lunch had already been served and the tidying up already accomplished, Ryan’s decision to whip on an apron, grab an already clean dish and fake it as the cameras rolled is instructive, yes. Plain weird, too, because as someone who’s active in his own parish, I’m sure he can appreciate how volunteers there might feel if Barack Obama ran in with cameras in tow to snap a few shots and then dashed back out again. (Though the head of the nonpartisan charity has since walked back his criticism that Ryan soaped up superfluously, pool reporters who were there haven’t.)

And Ryan is not the only candidate who has so far managed to get through this presidential race without offering any real response to the one of six Americans living in poverty. As Kathy Saile of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said at “Forget Not the Poor,” a bipartisan, interfaith anti-poverty event at Catholic University on Sunday, there’s been so much campaign talk about the middle class you’d swear what Jesus told us in Matthew 25 was, “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever you have done unto the middle class, you have done unto me.”

The Democratic nominee in 1972, Senator George McGovern, who entered a hospice on Tuesday, is one public servant who certainly never forgot the have-nots, then or at any time since. 

But this year “it’s not a major issue in the debate, and why isn’t it?” Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and an active Mitt Romney supporter, asked before the Sunday symposium, which he helped organize. “Occasionally one or the other” presidential candidate “will mention it,” but mostly, “it’s invisible,” said his co-organizer, Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, who’s involved in mobilizing Catholic voters for Barack Obama. “It’s not on anybody’s front burner.”

When the least-mentioned among us are brought up, it’s usually by the Republicans. Mitt Romney regularly cites the record number of Americans on food stamps, actually — but only as evidence that President Obama is encouraging a culture of Robin Hood-style thievery and dependency: “He said he wants to pool our resources and reallocate,” he told supporters in Las Vegas last month. “He’s going to take from some and give to others.”

“We are a compassionate people,” the candidate added. “But as someone has said, we don’t measure compassion by how many people we can put on food stamps. We measure compassion by how many people we can get off of food stamps and get a good job.” Oh, the crowd liked that a lot. But as many someones have said, the majority of those on food stamps are already working, often at more than one job.

 In Sidney, Ohio, a mellower Romney recently allowed that he and the president “both care very deeply about helping the middle class in America and helping to get people out of poverty and into the middle class. But our pathways for how to do it couldn’t be more different.” His plan? “I want to lower taxes on small business to create more jobs.”

We know it will take more than that to raise many people who’ve been jobless for a long time out of poverty — yet have you heard anyone on either the Republican or Democratic ticket talk about the subsidized jobs that really do help move people with serious challenges into regular employment later? Or make a serious push to expand the earned income tax credit? Or even to raise the minimum wage?

Vice President Biden does mention the people I’m talking about in his stump speech — but only to say that “wealthy people are as patriotic as poor people,” and thus would gladly pay more in taxes.

And Obama? Unlike Romney, he did respond — in detail — to advocates who had asked the candidates to describe their anti-poverty plans in writing. But on the stump, he usually only alludes to the poor in passing, too — when he praises Social Security for keeping 20 million older Americans out of poverty every year. 

Ryan did say something quite beautiful in his acceptance speech in Tampa, in one lapidary paragraph that acknowledged,  “We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”

A plan to halve Medicaid would not seem to square with that, however. While the president, though certainly more committed to helping those in need, rarely cops to it, even if I don’t know what he fears the Republicans will say about him that they haven’t said already.

When was the last time you heard any presidential candidate speak seriously, in any kind of sustained way, about the one in five American kids growing up in circumstances that ought to make us all ashamed? That would be during the “Two Americas” campaign of one John Edwards, a man we later learned was even fibbing when he said his favorite movie was “Dr. Strangelove.” (He’d never seen the film when he said that, but had decided that answer sent the perfect message.)  

No one thinks talking about poverty is a smart political move; thus the bipartisan silence. But I’m still hoping that by the time you read this in the print version of the paper on Wednesday, I’ll be all embarrassed that my prediction that this morally mandatory topic wouldn’t get much airtime at the second presidential debate was so off-base.

 

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Melinda Henneberger · October 16, 2012