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Why Won’t Obama Talk About The Poor?

February 2, 2014, 1:59 pm

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New Yorkers are doin’ it for themselves. Cover design by Robert Best

Say what you will about The Nation, it is one of the few publications that does consistent and evidence-based investigative reporting on poverty, both in the United States and abroad. Most American institutions — in particular, the two major political parties, but also many major news outlets — cannot bear to use the words “poor” or “poverty,” much less write anything that focuses on policy rather than human interest stories about people who overcome hardship by playing football or winning a scholarship to Harvard.

It’s policy we need, not cheerleading. John Nichols’ blog post “How Sargent Shriver Helped John Kennedy Become a Liberal” (The Nation, January 20 2014) makes a particularly important point: while the President has to be willing to set the tone, liberal policy makers who are not the president have historically been most effective in addressing inequality in the United States.

One might rightly ask: who is Obama’s Sargent Shriver? Who is his Harris Wofford? His Eleanor Roosevelt or Frances Perkins? He has not got a single person like this in any of the key advisory positions where such a player is desperately needed (here, we might cite Michelle Obama as perhaps the most wasted resource in the White House.) Furthermore, as The Nation‘s Sasha Abramsky writes, the President can have a crucial rhetorical role in mobilizing the nation and encouraging the development of social movements that, as Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven wrote in Regulating the Poor: the Functions of Public Welfare (1971) can move the state beyond palliative measures designed only to stabilize a reserve army of labor through the creation of sustainable poverty. Abramsky also writes about LBJ’s important role in generating national empathy for the poor and, in a second article, charges President Obama with ignoring the “castrophe” of poverty in America.

One way that the president does that, Abramsky correctly argues, is to address himself almost exclusively to this invented “middle class” that includes everyone who either makes over $11,490 (the federal poverty guideline for a single person with no dependents); or any family of four with a gross income of between $50,800 and $122,000 (United States Department of Commerce, 2010.) to  talk about hardship and debt in relation to a deserving middle class, rendering the poor invisible. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama spoke about the people who have been in grinding, multi-generational poverty since the Reagan Revolution not at all.

By cutting and pasting the president’s speech, first into a word document and then into worditout.com, this is what I learned:

  • The word poor appears once in the speech, and it was used in such a way as to illustrate that “Americans” have common beliefs across the lines of what we used to call class. “And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor,” the president said, “is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.” In fact, what many people who are poor in this country would be right to believe is that they can work their fannies off, eat grass, and never get ahead economically. They have the worst schools, the most unsafe, unhealthy and disproportionately expensive housing, are most likely to be homeless and without medical or dental care, and cannot afford the least expensive higher education or manual training options without taking on debt or joining the military.
  • The phrase middle-class appears five times; the word rich not at all except in the passage I quoted above; the phrase upper class not at all. The word wealthy appears once in this phrase, in which such people are spoken of as the opposite of the middle class, but not the poor. The poor disappeared entirely from the President’s statements about economic inequality: ”And if this Congress wants to help, work with me to fix an upside-down tax code that gives big tax breaks to help the wealthy save, but does little to nothing for middle-class Americans.”
  • The word poverty appears three times in the speech. The first two are in relation to people who work hard but are still poor, not people who have so few resources they cannot find or keep work. “Americans,” the president argued, “overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” A paragraph later he announced that he was raising the federal minimum wage to “at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.” Well here’s the news: take two working adults working a forty hour week each will gross $42,016. That is nowhere near $50,800 (see above.)
  • In his third use of the word poverty, Obama used the phrase extreme poverty, referring to Africa: “Across Africa, we’re bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty.” In other words, extreme poverty does not exist in the United States, it exists very far away in that continent so mysterious there are no nations there at all and “Americans” can all agree that everyone is poor.

Here’s the word cloud I generated for the 2014 State of the Union Address: what words were so insignificant that they did not show up at all? That’s right: poor and poverty

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Of course, word clouds are not everything: here is one I did from Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 address that also does not contain the words poor or poverty, even though we know that his anti-poverty programs were in full swing.

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The large, purple Vietnam on the lower left is particularly ominous, since Johnson had just escalated the war. But here we also see some other words that are strikingly absent from Obama’s word cloud: policy, help, principle, State, Federal, and Nation. Also look at the way people is emphasized over Americans: it’s the exact opposite for Obama.

Conclusion? Despite the President’s shaping experiences as a community organizer, he is not interested in creating empathy for people who have been buried by everything that has happened since 1980. The Obama administration as a whole is either profoundly confused about what poverty is or does not have the courage to speak about it honestly. Either way, it seems clear that we cannot expect major policy initiatives that will dig deeply into the kind of poverty that is not defined by the minimum wage, but by no wage at all; the poverty that is not about being underwater on your mortgage but about being on a list to get into a homeless shelter.

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