WHY ARE THE POOR UNMENTIONABLE?
There is no question that Hillary Clinton “won” the September 26 Presidential debate. She was knowledgeable, composed, unflappable, and occasionally even funny. Her opponent, who had the temerity to criticize her “stamina”, seemed to lack stamina of his own. By the time the 90-minute debate was over, the rude, sniffling, frequent water-sipping Mr. Trump looked like a candidate for enforced bed rest.
Mr. Trump was the loser, but he was not the biggest loser. The biggest losers were the unmentionables, the people who received scant attention, in the debate. There were 43.1 million poor people in the United States in 2015, 13.5 percent of the population. Yet they were barely mentioned. To be sure, moderator Lester Holt started the conversation between Clinton and Trump by asking a question about economic inequality. But neither Clinton nor Trump mentioned poverty or hunger, which remains a problem in the United States. Both talked about shoring up the middle class.
Clinton and Trump aren’t the only ones who avoid highlighting hunger and poverty when issues of economic inequality are discussed. When Vice-President Joe Biden was charged with focusing on the middle class in his “Middle Class Task Force” early in the Obama Administration, there was a conspicuous silence about the status of the poor. While President Obama has lots of issues to deal with, the poor have not been a priority for him.
The Census Report that was released on September 13, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015, documents improvements in our nation’s poverty status. Between 2014 and 2015, there were 3.5 million fewer people in poverty, and the poverty rate dropped quite significantly, from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent. The poverty rate for African Americans dropped from 26.4 to 24.1 percent, and child poverty dropped from 36 percent to 32.7 percent among African Americans.
Either Clinton or Trump could have talked about this economic good news with the caveat that while the drop in the poverty level is encouraging, there is still way too much poverty in our nation. One in five children under 18 live in poverty, along with one in three African American children. One in five African American households (and one in eight households overall) have incomes below $15,000 a year. Further, there is significant “extreme poverty” in our country, people who earn less than half the poverty line. Half of all poor households are among the extreme poor. One in ten African American households qualifies as extremely poor, which means an income of less than $12,000 for a family of four.
How can someone earn so little? All it takes is a low-wage job with unstable hours. A minimum wage worker who works full-time, full-year earns a scant $15,000 a year, but many low-wage jobs aren’t full-time, full-year. Many low-wage workers get “flexible” scheduling, which means that their hours of work are not guaranteed. Sometimes they are called to report for work, but if business is slow they can be sent home. There are few protections for these workers, which is why the Fight for Fifteen ($15 an hour) has gained such momentum.
To his credit, President Obama signed an executive order that requires federal contractors to pay at least $10 an hour to their workers. He has also signed an executive order requiring that federal contractors provide paid sick leave for their employees. Clearly, this administration is not indifferent to poor people. They just don’t talk much about them.
But the poor should not be our unmentionables. They are the living proof that our predatory capitalistic system is terribly flawed. Thus, even as the 2015 report on income and poverty celebrates economic progress (with incomes finally rising after years of stagnation), it also suggests that too many hard-working people are living in a state of economic deprivation. More than 35 percent of African American households have incomes below $25,000. Many of these families have incomes above the poverty line, but not by much.
There are two more debates, one of which will be conducted as a town hall. If moderators do not bring up the issue of poverty, perhaps someone in the audience of the town hall will. While I know that Hillary Clinton has more compassion for the poor, and has articulated solutions that will help end poverty (Mr. Trump, on the other hand, once said the minimum wage was “too high”), I think it important to hear matters of hunger and poverty addressed in the context of the Presidential debates. Our flawed economy has pushed the poor to the margins, but candidates can shed light on their issues and garner mainstream attention for them.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available via www.amazon.com