TOPICS > Economy

Poverty and Politics: How Strong Is Safety Net for Poor Americans?

February 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Presidential candidates have loaded recent stump speeches with references to wealth, taxes and "the very poor." Jeffrey Brown explores the role of poverty this election year with Lawrence Mead of New York University, Angela Glover Blackwell of the advocacy group PolicyLink and Barbara Perry of the University of Virginia.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, wealth, poverty and politics today.

For several weeks, much of the Republican presidential campaign seemed to focus on the subject of wealth, specifically that of Mitt Romney and the taxes he did or didn’t pay.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Will there will discussion? Sure. Will it be an article? Yeah. But is it entirely legal and fair? Absolutely. I’m proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The wealth focus came amid a national conversation prompted in part by the Occupy protest movement, which put a spotlight on economic inequality.

President Obama took up the theme in his State of the Union address last week.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the dialogue may be shifting from wealth to poverty.

Romney drew fire yesterday after he said this on CNN, explaining his focus on the middle class.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Las Vegas today, Romney’s Republican rival, Newt Gingrich, accused him of dismissing the poor.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): I really believe that we should care about the very poor, unlike Gov. Romney.

(LAUGHTER)

NEWT GINGRICH: But I believe we should care differently than Barack Obama. Both Gov. Romney and Barack Obama seem to believe that a — quote — “safety net” is all the poor need. I don’t believe that. What the poor need a trampoline, so they can spring up and quit being poor.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: And the president worked the issue into remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

BARACK OBAMA: It’s also about the biblical call to care for the least of these, for the poor, for those at the margins of our society, to answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

JEFFREY BROWN: The issue may resonate this election year more than most, as poverty numbers rise and millions of Americans remain unemployed.

And we explore some of these issues now with Angela Glover Blackwell. She’s the founder and CEO of the advocacy group PolicyLink. Lawrence Mead is professor of politics and public policy at New York University. And Barbara Perry, a senior fellow in the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Angela Glover Blackwell, I will start with you. A general question first: How serious a problem is poverty in America today?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL, PolicyLink: Poverty is a huge problem. It’s a problem for the people who are in it and it’s a problem for the nation — 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty level, highest number since 1993.

And 44 percent of those live below half of the poverty level. That means for a woman with two children, that’s less than $9,000 a year. On top of that, we have millions and millions of Americans, 127 million, who in three months of no job would live in poverty.

Poverty is a huge issue, it’s getting worse, and it should be very troubling to all of the American people, not just those who are living in poverty.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Lawrence Mead, you were an opponent of the welfare reform in the ’90s. You don’t hear much about poverty in our politics today. How would you frame the problem?

LAWRENCE MEAD, New York University: Well, poverty is a different problem from those that have gotten most of the attention. It’s not primarily due to unemployment or inequality.

Those are concerns that affect the bulk of the population and they affect some poor people. Poverty has grown largely due to economic conditions, but it doesn’t follow that most of poverty is due to the economy. That’s really not true. Most poor adults are outside the economy.

They’re simply detached. And they don’t say that the fact that they’re not working is due to the fact that they can’t find a job. That’s seldom the case. It’s usually other factors in their private lives that make it difficult for them to work.

Now, I don’t give up. I think we should take steps to make sure that they, in fact, go to work. And that’s what we did in welfare reform. I think we should also do it for non-working men of low income. Most of them are not employed either, and we need to do something about that. And certainly the economy makes it harder to do, but it’s still quite possible.

Jobs are usually available. The main problem is to mobilize people to actually get up and work regularly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Barbara Perry, there was that remark from Gov. Romney yesterday starting to bubble up into the political conversation. As someone who studies presidential history here, what strikes you about this moment as we think about poverty and politics?

BARBARA PERRY, University of Virginia: Well, I think it’s a moment that in many ways repeats a cycle in our country’s history that goes back to our very founding.

And that is that the founding fathers were aware of economic inequalities even at that time. And it has followed through and has often been kicked off, these various cycles, by traumatic upheavals. And certainly 2008 was a traumatic upheaval in our economy. And so I think the disparities that people see — and I think the hearts are in the right place of both Lawrence and Angela — they may have different approaches to the problem or see different political issues related to it.

But I think that it’s certainly bubbled up into the conversation of our politics because of the upheaval of 2008, for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Angela Glover Blackwell, I want to ask you, because you started by giving some very large numbers of people.

Do most Americans — when a Mitt Romney or a politician talks about the great middle, because that’s what we hear most often — do most Americans feel themselves to be in the middle and not in poverty?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Most Americans like to think of themselves as being in the middle.

Many Americans understand that they’re in a very vulnerable place right now. The notion that people in poverty really have a safety net is just wrong. And it’s smacks of a “let them eat cake” posture, not really understanding the depth of the problem, not understanding how to get out of it, but not understanding the impacts on society.

The people who are being left behind now, white people in rural communities, Latinos, African-Americans, will make up the future population. Almost half of all children now are children of color — they will be half by the end of this decade.

With high levels of poverty — 39 percent of all black children are poor — with high levels of poverty, the future is not right for America if we don’t deal with poverty and the people who are being left behind. The American people think of themselves as being middle class, but they know they’re vulnerable and they certainly don’t want to fall into a needy position, and have the leaders not understand that the safety net is not broad enough, it’s not strong enough, and it’s not thoughtful enough about how to get people get out of poverty and stay out of poverty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lawrence Mead, what do you think of this question, of the great middle, of the question of the safety net, of how people, how American voters see themselves and therefore how our politicians talk about these things?

LAWRENCE MEAD: Most Americans don’t think they’re poor, and they don’t think they’re at risk of poverty, but they are concerned about the poor.

We do have the safety net. There are about 46 million people on food stamps currently. That’s a huge number. We’re doing a lot to help people who are low-income. And we should do that. That isn’t where we’re failing, really. It has to do more with making sure that employment levels rise.

We have to make sure poor adults are regularly involved in the economy. We did that substantially for welfare mothers in the ’90s. We need to do it again today, particularly for low-working men. That’s the main thing we need to add to the safety net that we have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Barbara Perry, what do we know about what resonates with voters as we watch politicians talking about these issues, a lot of concern, a lot of resentfulness about — towards the wealthy, or still aspirational about getting out of poverty and out of middle class?

BARBARA PERRY: Well, Jeffrey, I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head. And that is indeed people want to have aspirations.

And that, I think, has been the beauty of our system and of our capitalistic system in this country for all of its history. And that is the great American dream, that each generation thought it could do better than the last.

And I know — here I sit at the University of Virginia , where I did a Ph.D., and my parents, because they came up in the Depression, the Great Depression, could not get beyond high school. And their parents in turn, who were very working-class, couldn’t get beyond sixth- or seventh-grade education.

But I think that what we see now and what will resonate with people is that politicians talk to them about the fear of losing those aspirations of the great American dream and the possibility that it’s turning into the great American nightmare.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Angela Glover Blackwell, do you think the subject is getting enough attention? What encourages or discourages you about what you’re hearing now?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I am so encouraged that we are talking about inequality in America. I’m pleased that we’re now talking about poverty.

We need to stay on this topic, because this mobility that we have been so proud of in this nation is in jeopardy — 47 percent of daughters who are poor will remain there, 35 percent of sons — 45 percent of African-American children born into the middle class will end up poor, 16 percent of white children.

We need to restore this notion that you can move up, that children can do better than their parents. We need to stay on topic. This is a serious problem. We need to come to some conclusions about how to move forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you hopeful about hearing those conclusions among — from the . . .

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I am.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because the conversation has opened up.

When the president did the State of the Union and he emphasized early education, K-12, strong community colleges, infrastructure investments, those were the right things to talk about. We need to really make sure that everything we do, including infrastructure investments, really can benefit those who are poor, they can get the jobs, their communities can be improved.

I am hopeful because the conversation we need to have is finally on the table.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lawrence Mead, are you hopeful about what we may hear on this, and is it getting — is the subject getting as much attention as it deserves?

LAWRENCE MEAD: I think it needs even more attention. I agree that improving opportunity is absolutely crucial. We need to make sure that people who are less well-off now will be able to improve their lot.

I see that as a joint enterprise. Government has to do things to help people, but people also have to help themselves. And that is what we should focus on. We need to have a situation where there’s a safety net, but also people go to work and they stay working, and they do other steps to advance themselves.

The ability to do that is still there in America, and we need to make sure that that’s the case in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Barbara Perry, I just think back to some periods in our history where poverty was an intensely felt part of the political conversation. It seemed to fall off the map for a while there. What do you think about now and going forward?

BARBARA PERRY: Well, I think it’d be great if, as we say, we carry on this conversation and we continue to talk about some of these disparities and we have people from all sides of the spectrum, experts in the field giving us different possibilities of how to address it.

But I think that I maintain that positive outlook that we can do this, but I do believe that the situation since 2008 has caused people to feel personally that they’re in a downward spiral, and we don’t want a situation where we have the different political parties just coming at each other and feeling — making people feel like the parties are spiraling downward as well on this particular topic, and not offering constructive possibilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’ll leave it there.

Barbara Perry, Lawrence Mead, Angela Glover Blackwell, thank you, all three, very much.

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Thank you.

BARBARA PERRY: Thank you.

LAWRENCE MEAD: Thank you.