The poverty, violence and collapsing public institutions pervading American cities received almost no attention during a presidential campaign so never-ending that it would seemingly have had time to cover any subject imaginable.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both visited Philadelphia recently to ask rich people for money.
“It’s a good thing if people are successful in life,” Ryan said, stroking the egos of 120 such people at the Republican Union League for one of two fundraisers aimed at raising $4 million. “We take pride in that. We don’t resent that.”
Things seemed less optimistic outside, where protesters formed a “human red carpet” to remind the super-rich about Philadelphia’s human-scale catastrophe: 40 percent of children living in poverty, resource-starved public schools facing mass privatization, and 324 people murdered in one year.
Indeed, the Union League feels much farther than its three-mile distance from the parking lot near my apartment where lines of people wait each Wednesday to pick up free produce, or the community health center down the street where neighbors face months-long waits for an appointment. It seems a world apart from the nearby courtrooms that send thousands of Philadelphians, often black and poor, into state and federal prisons each year.
When candidates did visit cities it was to court the super-elite, whether from Wall Street or Hollywood, in between bouts of deep-fried retail politics at rural state fairs. The poverty, violence and collapsing public institutions pervading American cities received almost no attention during a presidential campaign so never-ending that it would seemingly have had time to cover any subject imaginable. Yet it didn’t.
Poverty entered the campaign lexicon only in response to the most outrageous denigrations of poor people, from Newt Gingrich’s persistent “food stamp president” insults to Romney’s infamous February declaration, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” (He did add, in an important but entirely misleading bit of context, “We have a safety net there.”) Though Obama’s policies certainly do more to protect and support the poor than Romney, neither candidate said much about them.
A disproportionately high 20 percent of city residents live in poverty nationwide. And that’s according to a measure that describes a single mother of two children making just over $18,106 as not poor. Some 1.6 million New York City residents are poor. The Bronx is the nation’s poorest urban county, Manhattan its most unequal.
It’s no coincidence that poverty, visible on street corners from North Philadelphia to Detroit, has gone almost unmentioned in a campaign fueled by rich people debating whether or not Obama is sufficiently enamored with rich people.
“The divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them,” billionaire hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman remonstrated in an open letter to the president that would make for great humor were it not written by an inordinately powerful man. “It is a gulf that is at once counterproductive and freighted with dangerous historical precedents.”
None of the four debate moderators asked a single question about poverty, phenomenal in a country where an astonishing 46 million people-plus live in it. More than half of Americans have experienced poverty before reaching age 65.
The presidential campaigns mirror the racial and economic segregation pervading American cities and their suburbs: Poor people in the greatest need of help are pushed into cities and towns least able to provide it; the better off keep the poor out of mind, and away from the municipal budget.
We’ve come a long way since 1980, when it still seemed like a problem worth discussing.
During one of that year’s presidential debates, Oregonian reporter William Hilliard asked Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter whether “the decline of our cities … hastened by the continual rise in crime, strained race relations, the fall in the quality of public education, persistence of abnormal poverty in a rich nation and a decline in the services to the public … point toward a deterioration that could lead to the establishment of a permanent underclass in the cities.”
Today, the horse-race obsessed media is so blind to poverty that CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley had no idea what to talk about after Romney’s February “gaffe” brought the subject into the headlines. “All this talk today about poverty got us wondering just how many people in America live below the poverty line,” Pelley mused, before moving on to something else.
In September, progressive media watchdogs Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting released a report analyzing six months of coverage by nine major outlets, ranging from NBC Nightly News to The Washington Post. “Just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (.2 percent),” they found, “addressed poverty in a substantive way.”
It’s abundantly clear that Mitt Romney – who declared that 47 percent of Americans are hopelessly “dependent upon government;” “I like being able to fire people;” “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners” – is an out-of-touch super-rich buffoon. But an astute campaign-watcher from outer space would never know that the people who should be most revolted by his car-elevator-and-dressage-loving antics are the 46 million Americans living in poverty.