Will poverty in the United States be a campaign issue in 2012? I sure hope so…But I also hope any national debate about this issue is less about partisan politics and race-mongering and more about helping the hungry find food, the homeless find homes, and the unemployed find jobs. Right now it looks like we’re going to get a heavy dose of political theater, with the national media headlining all acts.
Consider Clarence Page’s recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune. Page argued that the poverty issue has alienated President Obama from his liberal base, especially African-American voters. At the heart of the problem is the economy, Page wrote, which has not recovered well or quickly enough to help the average American earn a living. Liberal Democrats claim that Obama has conceded too much political ground to Big Business and their Republican mouthpieces. African-American critics further argue that President Obama has a weak record on poverty, despite his pledge to help the economically underprivileged (who are disproportionately black and Latino) and the so-called New Poor. The only way out of this political problem, explained Page, is to continue building the broadest alliances possible to reform America’s economy: “Obama shows…no signs of changing course from his past approach: build a broad coalition with crucial middle-class swing voters by fighting poverty based on income and opportunity, not race…. That’s wise.”
On the one hand, I applaud Page for recognizing the most effective political approach to the problem of poverty—detaching it from race and focusing on the economic structures that cause the problem. On the other hand, Page’s entire editorial focused on making President Obama re-electable. I doubt the president’s relationship to his party’s base is important to families who buy less food in order to keep a roof over their heads.
And there’s my dilemma. I really hope poverty becomes a national issue in 2012, because I think Americans need to know what their future president will do to help the economically disadvantaged. Yet I’m fully aware of the fact that the debate will be about political ideology, not about policies that will help the people. Furthermore, campaign promises will go the way campaign promises go. Americans will choose their guy, expecting him to do as he said he would, and then laugh their pride away a few years later, when Jon Stewart reminds us how hollow a candidate’s words really are.
As the presidential campaign season approaches, I’ll be interested to see how politicians and pundits address the poverty issue. As of right now, it looks like we’ll be talking workers v. welfare queens again, and no one will propose policies that might work. Add to that the disgruntled, blue-collar white voters and “black voters’ Obama blues,” and we’ve got one hell of a show in the works. Oh, I love it when the circus comes to town!