Presidential Debates 2012: Candidates Talk Tons About the Economy, But Very Little About Poverty


In a political system rife with euphemisms (instead of military spending it’s “national defense,” and rather than welfare it’s “assistance for the poor”) American politicians are quick to couch serious or complicated issues in cheeky appellations such as Hoovervilles, Reaganomics, or Obamacare. 

This election has primarily focused (in part rightfully so) on jobs and the economy. But by focusing on these two buzzwords, both President Obama and former Governor Romney have continually ignored the deeper, more systemic and ugly problem that undergirds both the country’s economic and job issues: poverty. There is no cute or clever way to talk about a problem so deeply embarrassing to America – the richest country in the history of the world – and so it hasn’t been talked about at all.

The presidential candidates have spent so much time in the weeds over the course of their campaigns and the first two presidential debates, blustering and challenging each other over statistics on America’s economy and job prospects. Yet in even in the face of this extreme focus on the economy, neither candidate has had the courage to address head on the fundamental economic problem America is facing: poverty. In the first presidential debate, in fact, the word poverty was mentioned only once.

To put that in context, let’s take a quick digression to look at the numbers: as Peter Edelman describes in his new book, "So Rich, So Poor," in 2010, there were 46.2 million Americans living in what we define as “poverty,” subsisting on an income around $22,000 (or less) for a family of four. That’s 15.1% of our population.

To take that definition of poverty deeper, in 2010, 20.5 million people in America were living in extreme poverty, defined as living below half of the poverty line, or on less than $9,000 for a family of four.

To make that definition of poverty slightly more broad, 103 million Americans were living on incomes below twice the poverty line in 2010, or incomes less than $44,000 for a family of four. When you start to add up the costs of housing, food, taxes, utilities, childcare, health care, you name it – “twice the poverty line” begins to sound like a misleadingly generous designation.

If poverty is an issue that is affecting, in the roughest estimate, one in three Americans, how is the word itself so absent from the electoral conversation?

A challenge to the political dialogue, and to you: if this election were to focus on American poverty – how to make the poverty experienced by any individual as small in magnitude, short in duration, and swift in resolution as possible – how might the debate change? Talking about poverty alone will not solve the issue, but we can’t even embark on an attempt to tackle this insidious subject if President Obama and Governor Romney can’t even call it what it is.