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No More Poor People!

The presidential debates have become largely predictable, packaged mini-speeches volleying back and forth with slim attention to facts.  Like the party conventions, this political theatre does little more than remind us how excruciating these endless campaigns have become.  When the candidates came on stage last week wearing their color coordinated blue and red neckties the cartoonish superficiality of our political discourse seemed confirmed.

There were some surprises.  The first was how poorly the president did in the debate.  While he may have done a better job sticking to the facts, he was tentative and fumbling compared to Governor Romney who, reinventing himself yet again, attempted to shed the extremism of his party.  Perhaps Obama prepared for the candidate of the primaries and the Republican platform only to be confronted by a mysterious man in the middle – all benign moderation and hair gel.  The second surprise, and the really good news of this debate on the economy, is that apparently there are no more poor people in America!  Obama never mentioned the words poor or poverty in the entire 90 minutes.  Governor Romney used the word “poor” three times in brief references related to Medicaid, and then quickly apologized for using it as if he had dropped the f-bomb.   

We’ve come a long and dismal way since the nation was summoned to the War on Poverty.  That noble effort, sadly cut short by the moral, political, and financial cost of the War in Vietnam, is now a great unmentionable.  Apparently even the concept of a safety net for the poor as one of the fundamental responsibilities of government must be avoided in political discourse.  Instead we offer ladders up, even though those ladders hover cynically out of reach for most, a cruel hoax instead of compassionate help.

There were, of course, references to important programs that do help poor people.  Food stamps remain one of the federal government’s most important supports.  Romney did mention food stamps, lamenting the growth in their use rather than praising this critical support for our most vulnerable neighbors.  The solution, however, is not to work at cutting poverty but at cutting food stamps.  The current farm bill is stalled in Congress because the Republican House wants to cut food stamps beyond even the massive cuts already passed by the Democratic Senate.

Medicaid helps poor people though, again, neither candidate showed any desire to name that good news.  No, Medicaid is for the disabled, the autistic child and the elderly according to the rhetoric of the debate.  That’s true.  But the disabled and the elderly are on Medicaid because they are poor or would be devastatingly poor without it!  Obama tells us we can help the poor by cutting Medicaid waste and fraud.  Romney assures us that outsourcing Medicaid to the states will help the poor – excuse me, the disabled and the elderly.  It would be nice to believe they are simply naïve rather than cynical.  I’m not persuaded.

Governor Romney made news recently for candidly admitting that he’s writing off 47% of the electorate because they’ll never vote for him.  After last week’s debate on the economy it’s clear that both candidates have written off the nearly 47 million Americans now living in poverty.  I get it.  Poor peoples’ votes aren’t going to swing the election.  Undecided voters are not going to be persuaded by appeals to address the needs of the poor.  Wealthy donors have other self-serving agendas.  “The struggling middle class” is the mantra for every candidate.  Yes, I get it.  And I’m disgusted by it.

I frankly don’t expect today’s Republican candidates to call us to urgent action on behalf of the poor.  Most of them are far too beholden to the narcissism of the Tea Party.  That the Democratic standard bearer couldn’t bring himself to mention poor people is a stunning reminder of how far the political center of gravity has shifted and how much the great liberal legacy of the Democratic Party has been jettisoned in the race to that new middle.  If ever there was a time when religion ought to insert itself aggressively in politics, now is the moment.  Every major religious tradition has, at its core, a clarion call to privilege the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the poor.  Our religious texts may not offer clear policy proposals.  But they are unanimous in denouncing the silence that would render the poor invisible.

At the end of last week’s debate I wondered with many others about Obama’s strange performance and his failure to claim so many obvious opportunities.  But mostly I was angry and depressed.  Has the president forgotten the people on Chicago’s south side who drew him to community organizing and then politics in the first place?  Has Romney never met a poor person in his privileged life?  Or have votes simply become so precious that no one is willing to take a principled and courageous stand on behalf of the people who languish in crushing poverty in our midst?  That we will always have the poor with us, as Jesus puts it, ought not become a convenient rationale for walking away.  It ought to be heard as a call to enduring and passionate commitment.  Only then will any of us be worthy of the divine blessing that politicians these days make the routine tag line of every speech.  

We expect many things of our presidents, far too many for their powers and capacities, no doubt.  Bold policy initiatives are constrained by the politics of the legislative process, competing priorities, budgetary limitations, etc.  Presidents do, however, have the power of their public rhetoric, not just to garner votes, but to guide and correct our nation’s moral compass.  Obama’s reluctance, and Romney’s inability to employ their public rhetoric on behalf of the poor, calling us to the highest communal virtues and the deepest forms of neighborliness, is more than disappointing.  It’s not just that the poor deserve more from our candidates.  We all do.

John H. Thomas

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