Poverty and the US presidential election

The plight of the poor has barely been mentioned in the campaigns, even though one in six Americans lives in poverty.

When I meet 36 year old Bettina White outside her house in Mound Bayou, Mississippi she’s reluctant to let me inside her family home.

This is the Mississippi Delta, the poorest region in the United States, and Bettina is ashamed to show me how she and her six children live.

Eventually she opens her door and gives me a glimpse of what life is like for many families in the delta.

Her children sleep on worn-out, filthy mattresses on the floor, there is one barely functioning bathroom and the kitchen is rudimentary at best.

“I want my kids to grow up and leave this place, make something of themselves,” she says.

Her 12-year-old son Randolph already knows that he wants to leave this small town but right now he’s more upset that he doesn’t have enough money to buy his mother a birthday present.

‘Politicians to blame’

“I have not seen the progress that I would like to see, there’s no question about that,” Johnnie Vick, the Principal of Randolph’s school in Mound Bayou, says.

Vick has been working in the Mississippi Delta for the past 20 years and he blames the plight of the regions continuing poverty on the inaction of north America’s politicians.

“Regardless of who gets into office I have not seen anything transpire that has made any dramatic changes to the Mississippi Delta.”

Vick goes on to tell me that he doesn’t believe the delta is “important” enough for politicians to bother with but his argument goes to the heart of an observation that is gaining traction.

The plight of those in poverty has barely been mentioned on the campaign trails of either President Obama or Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, and that’s significant if you consider the latest figures.

According to the US Census Bureau, almost one in six people in the US lives in poverty. That equates to around 46 million people, the most since census records began in 1959.

Living on the streets

In real terms, that means boys like Randolph have less of a chance in life and people like 77-year-old Mary McGrory, who I meet living in a van on the streets of Miami, face an even bleaker future.

She lost her house three years ago. “I couldn’t afford to pay the taxes and I couldn’t afford to rent anywhere,” she tells me as she shows me a handful of black and white pictures of better days.

Mary, like too many in her generation, survives on charity and social welfare payments that aren’t enough to provide her with a safe, secure place to live.

Taking a glimpse into the lives of those affected by poverty is important but ignoring them could be political folly.

According to a recent Gallup poll, half of Americans in poverty are politically independent and its independent voters that could hold the key to this election, especially in those all-important battle ground states.

But there could be a more pragmatic reason that the poor are being ignored in this election. Traditionally voter turnout amongst north America’s low income voters is low, so low you’d think they didn’t exist.

Follow Andy Gallacher @AndyGaje

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