Poverty lost during campaign

10/7/2016, 10:39 p.m.
There is no question that Hillary Clinton won the Sept. 26 presidential debate. She was knowledgeable, composed, unflappable and occasionally ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

There is no question that Hillary Clinton won the Sept. 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, her rude, sniffling, frequent water-sipping opponent Donald 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 Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump by asking a question about economic inequality. But neither of them mentioned poverty or hunger, which remains a problem in the United States. Both talked about shoring up the middle class.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. 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.

Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015, a Census report released Sept.13, 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 Mrs. Clinton or Mr. 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 level. Half of all poor households are among the extreme poor.  One in 10 African-American households qualifies as extremely poor, which means an annual income of less than $12,000 for a family of four.

To his credit, President Obama signed an executive order that requires federal contractors to pay at least $10 an hour to their workers. He 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, on Sunday, Oct. 9, at Washington University in St. Louis, 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. 

Mrs. 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 is 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.

The writer is an economist and author.