Why Can't Democrats Talk About Poverty?

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This is one of the most frustrating things for me as a Democrat: The problems of poverty have simply disappeared from the national political discussion. It's not as if we don't have poor people anymore, right? Obviously, the topic doesn't test well in focus groups, or we'd hear about it. But what does this say about the party's historic claim to protect the poor and needy? Not too much, I'm afraid. Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, writes:

Underneath the statistics, hidden behind the desolation of the poor in the poorest big city in the United States, lies one of most intractable political dilemmas of our era: Can the Democratic party, the party of the left, address issues of poverty and want in today’s political environment? For example, can they talk about hunger?

Hunger has grown sharply since the financial collapse of 2008, although it is felt acutely by a relatively small percentage of the population. In 2007, 12.2 percent of Americans experienced what the Department of Agriculture describes as “low food security,” including 4 percent who fell into the category of very low food security. By 2011, the percentage of those coping with low food security rose to 16.4 percent, and those experiencing very low food security went up to 5.5 percent.

The U.S.D.A. defines “low food security” as a lack of access “at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life.” It defines “very low food security” as individuals going without or with very little food “at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”

Looked at through the calculus of contemporary partisan politics, the U.S.D.A. data demonstrates that in 2011 low food security was a problem for just under one in eight whites — a matter of concern but for many white voters, a virtually invisible issue. Very low food security affects the lives of only one in 24 whites.For African Americans, low food security is a problem affecting one in four, and one in ten experience very low food security. The percentage of Hispanics who experience low food security is higher than the percentage of blacks, although the percentage of Hispanics suffering very low food security is slightly lower.

[...] The issue of hunger sheds light on the broader politics of poverty.

Democrats have concluded that getting enough votes on Nov. 6 precludes taking policy positions that alienate middle-class whites. In practice this means that on the campaign trail there is an absence of explicit references to the poor — and we didn’t hear much about them at the Democratic National Convention either.

Republicans, in turn, see taking a decisive majority of white votes as their best chance of winning the presidency. The 2012 electorate is likely to be 72% white, according to a number of analyses. In this scenario, Republicans need to get at least 62 percent of the white vote to win, and Democrats need to get 38 percent or more of the white vote.

Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at Yale and the author of several highly praised books about race and urban America, including “The Cosmopolitan Canopy,” organized the symposium. When I asked him about the Democrats’ problems in addressing poverty, Anderson wrote back in an email:

Apparently, the Republicans have backed the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, into the proverbial racial corner. It is a supreme irony that Obama, the nation’s first African-American President, finds himself unable to advocate for truly disadvantaged blacks, or even to speak out forthrightly on racial issues. To do so is to risk alienating white conservative voters, who are more than ready to scream, “we told you so,” that Obama is for “the blacks.” But it is not just the potential white voters, but the political pundits who quickly draw attention to such actions, slanting their stories to stir up racial resentment. Strikingly, blacks most often understand President Obama’s problems politically, and continue to vote for him, understanding the game full well, that Obama is doing the “best he can” in what is clearly a “deeply racist society.” It’s a conundrum.

The issue of race helps to explain another development in academia as well as in the public debate: the near abandonment of the once powerful tradition of exposing the exploitation of the poor.

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