DN Editorial: We can't eliminate poverty if we don't talk about it

Posted: September 25, 2012

A COUPLE of weeks ago, MSNBC's Chris Hayes' program unearthed a clip of a 1965 black-and-white ad from the War on Poverty: "Today," it went, "millions of Americans are caught in circumstances beyond their control. Their children will be compelled to live lives of poverty unless the cycle is broken."

Talk about Ancient History, or at least Ancient Sociology: The latest figures show poverty in America at 15 percent in 2011, affecting 46.2 million people (the most ever), with income disparity the worst since 1929, and experts predicting it will reach levels not seen since that black and white ad. But the prevailing political "wisdom" on poverty is very different now.

One argument that has gained currency is that the poor aren't really poor, because they have refrigerators and cell phones. Here's another: The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression doesn't qualify as "circumstances beyond their control." Instead, people who lose their jobs and can't find others just aren't looking hard enough. And the most shocking of all: To punish their parents, it's OK to let children go hungry and suffer the health and educational ramifications of malnutrition.

That's how some people think of poverty - if they think about it at all.

In Philadelphia, times are tougher than in many other parts of the country. A recent Census Bureau report showed that, from 2010 to 2011, Philadelphia's poverty rate increased from 26.7 percent to 28.4 percent. Nearly 40 percent of Philadelphia's children are poor. Poverty is measured at $23,050 for a family of four in 2012.

So, while the economy is growing again, low- and middle-income families aren't sharing in the improvement. The incomes of the top 5 percent grew in 2011, but U.S. median income actually went down.

Yet politicians of all leanings just don't want to talk about it, almost certainly taking their cues from the populace at large. In a recent study, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting looked at six months of national political coverage and found that poverty was the subject of less than 0.2 percent of the stories - that is, only 17 out of 10,489.

In order to do something about poverty, we have to be able to recognize it. An organization sponsored by the Center for American Progress called "Half in Ten" ( www.halfinten.org) has set a goal of halving the U.S. poverty rate in 10 years by putting it back on the national agenda. First step: "updating" Americans' understanding of poverty, beginning with the way it is calculated. The current method - used for nearly a half-century - multiplies estimated food costs by three, which doesn't take into account increased expenses such as housing, transportation and child care - and gives a much brighter picture than the actual reality.

Half in Ten is urging Americans to "tweet" the moderators of the presidential debates using the hashtag #talkpoverty to challenge the candidates on how they would reduce poverty in their first 100 days in office.

It's not the modern "war on poverty" that we need, but it's a start.

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