America’s Invisible Poor

Political leaders of both parties must confront the problem of poverty, which cries out for bipartisan solutions.

 A homeless man warms his hand next to a wood-burning stove.
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Dan Glickman is a former Secretary of Agriculture, Chair of the Board of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), board member of Oxfam America, vice president of the Aspen Institute, and Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The views expressed are his own. This article is part of an Oxfam America initiative to focus greater attention on poverty and low-wage work in America. Join the discussion at www.oxfam.america.org/voices.

It has been nearly half a century since President Lyndon Johnson declared "war on poverty." That war produced great successes, and many of its initiatives have been profoundly effective – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Head Start, Medicaid, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, school breakfast programs, and federal aid for poor schools and students.

Now, however, after years of erosion of wages and benefits, the U.S. poverty rate has risen and approaches a 50-year high. Yet poverty has become an almost invisible issue for policymakers and the press. It feels today like a "war on poverty" would need to begin with a battle just to gain recognition that poverty even exists.

In particular, we have seen growth in the ranks of the working poor, hard-working Americans whose jobs pay less than a living wage, often provide little dignity and offer few paths for advancement. Nearly 50 million Americans live below the poverty level and 20 million of them are in extreme poverty (earning less than half the poverty threshold), according to the Census Bureau. Another 50 million people live in "near poverty," with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line, or about $22,000 a year for an individual.

As poverty and low-wage work become more and more widespread – with much recent labor force growth occurring in poorly paying, dead-end jobs – it is striking how little is being said about the poor and those on the edge of poverty. If America's growing inequality is even discussed, much of the conversation is about the wealthy and whether they should pay more in taxes, rather than about how to lift up the poor.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

In a recent report, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, in 52 major mainstream news outlets, coverage of poverty amounted to far less than 1 percent of available news space. As Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans said, "Poverty becomes a sort of 'very special episode' of journalism that we sort of roll out every so often."

The subject gets brief attention when the Census releases its annual poverty numbers every September. Meanwhile, Congress has devoted very little time to hearings on poverty or its consequences – hunger, bad housing and homelessness, overwhelming stress for parents, school failure, reduced productivity – during the last few years.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

We have a broad, inchoate sense that our economy isn't doing well, but we too rarely consider what this means for one-third of our people – jobs that are insecure and pay little, unaffordable housing, no benefits, parents skipping meals so children have enough to eat and lives barely held together by going into unsustainable debt, turning to charity and cobbling together government benefits. Budget battles get all the headlines, but the battles to escape poverty that millions of Americans fight every day are much less discussed. This is a very disturbing trend, for humanitarian, practical, fiscal, economic, and political reasons.

Most would agree with President Obama that we need to "build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class." But we need to confront the reality that too many Americans are poor and that our society has become sundered into the increasing numbers of those who struggle to get by, the shrinking number of those who do OK and a few who do very well.

The facts about poverty and low-wage work are staring us in the face, but our society is largely averting its gaze. There are many reasons for this: persistent distrust of government among many Americans, real long-term fiscal and budget problems, political gridlock and the incorrect belief that most anti-poverty programs don't work. Perhaps part of the problem is that, among the many powerful political action committees in Washington, there is no poor peoples' PAC.