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US poor left out in the cold

As the presidential election nears, neither candidate is talking about 15.1 per cent of Americans who live in poverty.
Last modified: 1 Sep 2012 20:08

Every day, a little before noon, a long line of people assemble in front of the Urban Ministry Center in the US city of Charlotte, in North Carolina. It’s the place that the impoverished, the chronically homeless, or the temporarily down on their luck turn to for food and help.

On the day we visited the centre, lunch for several hundred people was a bowl of soup and a sandwich.

I struck up a conversation with Toronto McLeod. He’s a talkative man of 48, with a tattoo on his left arm showing the masks of Comedy and Tragedy and the words "Only God Can Judge Me".

McLeod freely admitted he’s had trouble with drugs and with the law. "I used to smoke rock," he said, referring to a street name for crack cocaine. He says he regrets his bad choices and is trying to re establish his life on firmer ground.

"Most of the time you've got to scratch and do what you gotta do," he said. Right now he’s working occasional odd jobs and staying with a relative. "Its kinda hard to get back up once you go down, its real hard to get back up," McLeod said.

"Without resources the people on the street are dead, you know. They’re dead."

I spoke to Liz Peralta, a short, intense woman who manages development for the Urban Ministry Shelter. She seeks out funding from a consortium of churches, private philanthropies and corporations. Peralta says most of the people they care for have recently slipped into destitution.

"Eight-five to 90 per cent of the people we see are considered situationally homeless," Peralta said. "They are homeless and this may be the only time in their lives that they will be homeless. They’ve suffered a job loss, an illness in the family or a divorce. Some episode in their life has knocked them from the precipice of being really poor but housed to being really poor but homeless."

According to US Census Bureau statistics released in 2010 (the most recent year available), there are 46 million people living in poverty in the United States.

Twenty-two percent of all children, nearly 10 per cent of the elderly, and 27 per cent of African Americans in America live in poverty. One would think that such widespread poverty would be near the top of the political agenda.

In other countries, perhaps it would be. And yet, in this Presidential election year, neither candidate is talking about poverty. It's almost as if poor people don’t exist as a political issue.

President Barack Obama focuses on winning middle class voters, telling an interviewer recently: "The policies I’m offering are ones that have been proven in the past to help middle class families."

His Republican opponent Mitt Romney appeared to dismiss concerns about poverty, telling an interviewer earlier this year, "I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there."

It wasn’t always this way. Poverty was a burning issue in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when vast numbers were destitute. Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up programs to alleviate unemployment and created the Social Security program, a system of government payments to elderly Americans.

Poverty was once more a real issue in the 1960s, when Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" and initiated a host of programmes, including Medicare and Medicaid, which provide government payments for elderly and poor people’s healthcare.

Both Roosevelt and Johnson’s reforms were bitterly opposed by the Republican party, just as the party has opposed Obama’s healthcare reforms that allow more impoverished people to get health insurance.

The percentage of US citizens in poverty is higher now - at 15.1 percent - than it was in 1967, at the height of Johnson’s War on Poverty.

So why isn’t poverty part of the political discourse?

Political analyst and radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson says the reason is because the poor don't come out to vote.

"Poverty is not an issue with elected officials from the White House on down, because one, there’s no votes there, two, poor people do not have defined organisations that can go to bat for them, and the bigger thing is that America is in constant denial including politicians that we really have a problem with poverty in this country."

Hutchinson says there is a deeply ingrained belief among Americans — including the poor — that poverty is a kind of personal failure, rather than the result of economic and social forces. That concept leads poor people to feel "It’s because they are doing something or lack something," he says. "Essentially the poor are pariahs, they are outcasts."

The people at the Urban Ministry Center don’t consider themselves pariahs, but they do feel nearly invisible when it comes to the current state of American political discourse. Toronto McLeod told me has been watching some of the coverage of the election campaign on television.

"I think that the presidential election should be about us focusing on the lower class," he said.

"The middle class is fine, but what about the people that don’t have no resources?"

But McLeod knows that in the United States of 2012, politics is all about money and influence - and poor people, by definition, don’t have any.