WASHINGTON — For all the talk by the presidential candidates about producing jobs, fixing the economy, and bolstering the country’s middle class, a dispiriting prospect looms ahead of November’s election: The nation’s poverty rate is poised to rise to its highest level since President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war against it.
New Census Bureau estimates are expected to be released this week, and even a small two-tenths tick upward would push the 2011 rate to its highest level since 1965.
With nearly one in every six Americans now living in poverty, advocates for the poor say little attention is being paid to the issue and express concern over how this fall’s elections could influence government programs meant to aid the poor.
“The political visibility and influence of the poor is now about where it was in the early 1960s, before the war on poverty. If either plans to address poverty, they clearly expect to do it below the radar,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Much of the rhetoric and promises of both Mitt Romney and President Obama have centered on rescuing the middle class. The word poverty is seldom heard. Yet the election’s outcome could have a profound effect on the nation’s neediest, particularly regarding plans to trim entitlements and slash such programs as food stamps to ease the strain on the federal budget.
When he accepted his party’s nomination, Romney broached the topic while assailing Obama for what the former Massachusetts governor said were failed economic policies.
“Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before,” Romney said. “Look around you. These are not strangers. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans.”
Those words created a sense of dissonance among advocates for the poor, who note that Romney’s proposed budget plan would require spending cuts of nearly $10 trillion over what he hopes will be two terms in the White House. But it is uncertain which programs he would cut, and by how much, because the plan lacks such details.
The Romney campaign argues that controlling government spending and cutting tax rates for top earners will stimulate the economy and create jobs, particularly for the poor.
“It’s clear that if the economy has a reasonable recovery, nobody doubts the rate of poverty would come down,” said Jencks. It won’t necessarily help the poor who have jobs but are paid minimum wage. Nor will it help the job prospects of the disabled, the low-skilled or uneducated, he said.
While arguing that the White House is taking the right course by resisting most of the spending cuts pushed by Republicans, advocates for the poor say Obama and Democrats should be more aggressive in trying to lift people out of poverty.
Shortly after his election, Obama pledged to raise the $7.25 an hour minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, so “full-time workers can earn a living wage that allows them to raise their families and pay for basic needs such as food, transportation, and housing — things so many people take for granted.”
But he didn’t deliver, and the prospect of renewing that pledge could be political folly because the House is now controlled by Republicans — who have rejected Obama’s major jobs bills.
That’s not to say Obama has not had victories. The president’s $787 billion stimulus program set aside money to boost food stamps and unemployment insurance benefits, as well as expand earned income and child tax credits. After getting a temporary extension of the tax credits until the end of this year, the White House is proposing to make the tax breaks permanent. The extended jobless benefits have expired.
In his own convention speech, Obama used the word “poverty” twice. In one instance, he framed the issue as part of a broader discussion about the role of government.
“We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone,” he said. “We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves.’’
An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, showed that the president’s stimulus package in 2009 prevented nearly 7 million Americans from falling into poverty. The center also pointed out the key role that entitlement programs such as Social Security play in keeping people out of poverty, suggesting the rate would nearly double to 28.6 percent if all such programs were eliminated.
In 2010, there were 46.2 million people living in poverty — 15.1 percent — in the United States. That is the most people since the government began its accounting in 1959, although the rate is lower than 1965.Continued...