Ignoring America’s poor

With 46 million people living in poverty, why are the presidential candidates so quiet on issues affecting the poor?

Despite persistent poverty across the US, President Barack Obama, and his republican challenger, Mitt Romney, rarely mention the country’s most vulnerable. Why are the poor being ignored?

They are certainly not addressing it in the campaign, Obama may return to some of these issues after the elections – assuming he is re-elected – but even then we expect to see a grand bargain out of Obama in the lame duck period. And that is not necessarily going to help seniors … so Obama is better than Mitt, but neither one of them are addressing it in the campaign.

– Marcy Wheeler, investigative blogger

And while the economy will be the main focus of the first presidential debate on Wednesday, so far, the country’s poor have been left out of the conversation.

That is despite the more than 46 million people who now live below the poverty line. And tens of millions more are at risk, as median incomes continue to decline.

The US Census Bureau has set the poverty threshold for a four-person household at about $23,000. The median household income is just over $50,000. Its latest figures show that in 2011 46.2 million people, or 15 per cent, live in poverty.

Nearly half of them live in ‘extreme poverty’ with an income below 50 per cent of the poverty threshold.

Last year the Census Bureau estimated that an additional 51 million people are near the poverty line, with incomes less than 50 per cent above the threshold.

The UN says the child poverty rate is the second highest in the developed world, following Romania with 21.9 per cent of the nation’s children under 18 living in poverty.

The situation is absolutely devastating where one in every two people in this country are currently in poverty and where people are sleeping on the streets of our rich country – unable to feed their kids. And this is all happening because neither Mitt Romney nor Obama care about this section of the population, they only care about corporate America, they only care about the one per cent and the rest of us have just been left on the wayside …

–  Cheri Honkala, the Green Party

Minorities are also disproportionately impacted, with 27.6 per cent of African Americans and 25.3 per cent of Hispanics living in poverty.

In contrast, only 9.8 per cent of non-Hispanic whites live in poverty.

Obama has made very few mentions of poverty during his address at the DNC, and when he did, he incorporated conservative rhetoric often employed against the poor: “We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty programme alone. We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we certainly don’t want bailouts for banks that break the rules.”

And it seems there are votes up for grabs if either of the two main parties chooses to address the poverty agenda. According to Gallup: 50 per cent percent of those below the poverty threshold are Independents, 32 per cent are Democrats and 15 per cent are Republicans.

With those startling figures in mind we ask: Are US politicians ignoring the plight of the country’s disadvantaged?

Inside Story US 2012, with Shihab Rattansi, speaks to guests: Cheri Honkala, the vice presidential nominee for the Green Party; Marcy Wheeler, an investigative blogger, who runs the website emptywheel.net; and Austin Nichols, a senior researcher for the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

“So this is personal to me. We moved millions of people off welfare. It was one of the reasons that in the eight years I was president, we had a hundred times as many people move out of poverty into the middle class than happened under the previous 12 years, a hundred times as many.”

Former US President Bill Clinton, at the Democratic National Convention, on the changes made to social assistance programmes under his administration.


  • Neither candidate is talking about poverty while campaigning
  • Poverty rates in the US are the highest in half a century
  • The poverty rate had gone up since 2006 but last year it dipped 0.1 per cent
  • US census: income inequality rose by 1.6 per cent between 2010 and 2011
  • Poverty among males dipped from 14 per cent in 2010 to 13.6 per cent in 2011
  • Female poverty did not change much, it stood at 16.3 per cent in 2010 and 2011
  • US’ south was the only region to see changes in poverty, dipping by 0.8 per cent
  • A single person making less than $11,170 lives below poverty line