IGPA: Battling poverty should be priority for both candidates

By ELIZABETH POWERS

More people are living in poverty now than in the past half-century that records have been kept. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate was 15 percent in 2011. That means more than 46 million Americans are living at levels below the poverty threshold. In local urban pockets, the situation is dismal. In Chicago's most impoverished neighborhoods of Riverdale and Fuller Park, rates are around 60 percent, while Englewood's and East Garfield Park's rates hover near 40 percent.

The levels are worse for some groups than for others. Child poverty reached 22.5 percent in 2011, and black Americans have a poverty rate over 28 percent. Poverty is also taking on a more pervasive character than in years past. Detailed analyses reveal rapid growth in suburban poverty. For example, nearly half of Chicagoland's poor were suburban in 2008, as opposed to less than 40 percent in 2000.

In the face of rampant U.S. poverty, you might imagine that both presidential candidates would talk a lot about this problem. You would be wrong. Republicans declare that the safety net is the cause of, not the solution to, poverty, and that we have to keep our eyes on the long-run goal of economic growth. Perhaps bruised from attempts to label him as the "Food Stamp" president and suggestions that he is attempting to undermine welfare reform, President Obama has downplayed poverty as a campaign issue.

In February, the Mitt Romney campaign briefly mentioned the poverty issue, only to brush it off. The candidate stated that, "I'm not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it." Significantly, these remarks appeared to convey an understanding that the very poor often can't lift themselves and their families up without the government's help.

However, Mr. Romney has yet to point out a single hole in the safety net that he would fix. To the contrary, Mr. Romney has since said that he would like to see more restrictions to various welfare programs, like increased time limits and work requirements. Further, Mr. Romney subsequently chose as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, who has laid out explicit plans to virtually eliminate all welfare spending.

Mr. Romney's recently revealed, infamous remarks at a private fundraiser leave no doubt that he supports the Republican philosophy that all government assistance is a "problem." The poor are most assuredly among the "47 percent" of Americans that are "dependent on government" and "believe they are victims."

President Obama, in contrast, has anti-poverty policy goals, but lacks specifics on how to reach them. First-term policy objectives included cutting poverty in half in a decade and eliminating child hunger by 2015, objectives that now seem almost laughably naive. On the other hand, he can claim credit for the health care reform that is the one major advancement in federal anti-poverty policy of his administration.

Someday, robust economic growth, if sustained long enough, may eventually lead every family in the U.S. to prosperity. Even if one of the parties could achieve this far-off goal, it is indisputable that a large number of Americans struggle to make it from day to day. Facing this reality demands that the candidates talk about what they can do to address the problem of poverty in the near-term, as well as their vision for bringing our current record rates down for good.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author. Elizabeth Powers is an associate professor of Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and IGPA. She is an expert on social policies, including welfare and public health insurance.

About "On the Issues": For more than 65 years, the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) has conducted nonpartisan research on our nation's toughest policy challenges. IGPA experts have devoted their careers to studying the complicated issues behind the questions that are often on voters' minds. What are the most important things citizens should know as the step into the voting booth this fall? We asked our IGPA experts: What does the research show? Here, find the nonpartisan, evidence-based answers ON THE ISSUES. Learn more at http://igpa.uillinois.edu/ontheissues.

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