By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 10:59 PM
Deborah Weinstein, a longtime advocate for the poor, calls the news that one in seven Americans is living in poverty "a national emergency."
But for much of Washington's political class, the shocking new poverty numbers provoked not alarm about the poor but further debate over tax cuts for the middle class.
"We know that a strong middle class leads a strong economy," President Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden on Friday, as he used the new census report, which also showed that middle-class income has dipped slightly over the past decade, to continue making his case for limiting the cuts to family incomes under $250,000.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House and Senate had no reaction to the poverty report. But earlier in the week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the Senate floor to argue for extending the tax breaks to everyone, saying, "We can't let the people who have been hit hardest by this recession and who we need to create jobs to get us out of it" be subject to a tax increase.
McConnell's spokesman later clarified the statement, saying that McConnell indeed believes the economic downturn has hit the poor harder than it has high-income business owners, who also have suffered.
The reluctance of political leaders on both sides of the aisle to directly confront the fact that growing numbers of Americans are slipping into poverty reflects a stubborn reality about the poor: They are not much of a political constituency.
"We talk to many people on Capitol Hill who do believe poverty is important and is a blight on our nation," said Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations that advocates for the poor. "But we are also up against a general recognition that poor people don't vote in great numbers. And they certainly aren't going to be making campaign contributions. That definitely puts them behind many other people and interests when decisions are being made around here."
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who counts among his legislative accomplishments bills to extend unemployment insurance and to provide housing for people suffering from AIDS, said that the current downturn has expanded the definition of the poor. No longer are the poor the chronically impoverished who scrape along at the bottom of the economic pecking order in good times and bad. They now include many working people who have been thrown out of their jobs by a brutal recession.
"The fact is, increasingly, we are talking about people we know," McDermott said. Still, he said, "For most elected officials, there is nothing politically in talking about the poor. In fact, they don't vote very well and they are not very participatory in political life. Politicians tend to talk to people who get involved."
McDermott said he has been urging his colleagues to take a fresh look at poverty. The new report showed that the ranks of the American poor soared to their highest level in half a century in 2009. Meanwhile, millions more are existing just beyond the poverty line, which is about $22,000 a year for a family of four.
The official poverty rate is just one aspect of the economic upheaval unleashed by the recession. Since 2007, the country has lost almost 4 million wage earners. And for the first time since the government began tracking health insurance in 1987, the number of people who have health coverage declined, a circumstance destined to change when the Obama-led health-care overhaul fully kicks in by 2014.
With foreclosures continuing to rise and long-term unemployment at record levels, McDermott said, the legacy of the economic crisis will affect society in a way the country has not experienced since the aftermath of the Great Depression.
Even amid the devastating downturn, Americans seem ambivalent toward the needy. The instinct to help those in tough straits is often constrained by a lurking feeling that the poor are to blame for their own problems. Or, that what helps the needy might take something away from everyone else.
The debate over extending unemployment benefits, which now last as long as 99 weeks, generated increasing commentary that the benefit was sapping people of the desire to work.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said that more than two decades of polling shows that a solid, if fluctuating, majority of Americans believe government has a responsibility to care for the poor.
"But as you begin to ask more specific questions, you get lower levels of support for specific programs as people worry about costs, taxes and the rise of government," Kohut added. "Plus, there is a great deal of political polarization of this."
A 2009 Pew survey found that 63 percent of Americans believed government should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. But that number fell to 48 percent when people were asked whether government should help the needy even if it increases the debt. Nearly two in three Democrats, 43 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.
All of which explains why even many staunch Democrats have not talked much about poverty.
On Thursday, hours after the Census Bureau released the poverty numbers, Obama issued a written statement that quickly broadened the discussion beyond the poor.
"Today, the Census Bureau released data that illustrates just how tough 2009 was," the statement said. "Even before the recession hit, middle class incomes had been stagnant and the number of people living in poverty in America was unacceptably high, and today's numbers make it clear that our work is just beginning."