The Middle Shall Inherit the Earth: America’s Sin of Omission

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so. Because I saw it in their eyes. […] And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought, then in 1928, that I’d be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a secret… I mean to use it.

Lyndon Johnson (1965), calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act

It wasn’t always this way. When Lyndon Johnson spoke about “all Americans,” he made it crystal clear that he was talking about the poor and people of color. Check out his 1964 election ad and compare it to one of Barack Obama’s most popular ads. Obama talks about everyone but the poor—calling for more taxes on the rich and tax cuts for the middle class. Even Clinton’s much-heralded convention speech discussed how to “empower middle class families and help poor kids.” Notice that the specter of poverty among adults was kept offstage.

Listening to the presidential debates last week, you’d be blown away to discover that one in four black Americans is living in poverty. Or that one in four Hispanic Americans is living in poverty. Or that the national poverty rate for individuals is 15 percent. Mitt Romney mentioned the poor three times, and twice only to say how the federal government should stop trying to help them—first by letting states weaken Medicaid standards, and second by letting states voucherize public education. The final time, Romney argued that “one out of six people [living] in poverty” is proof of Obama’s failing economic policy. Shortsighted as that may be, at least he mentioned the poor. Obama didn’t mention the poor once, aside from a brief nod to those “striving to get in the middle class.” How’s that for #euphemismofthenight?

 I want to hit those numbers again. One in four black Americans is living in poverty. One in four Hispanic Americans is living in poverty. These numbers should be burnt into our collective conscience until we muster the political courage to do something about it. How many presidents? 44. How many states? 50. How many black and Hispanic Americans are living in poverty? One in four.

 And yet, all we hear about is the middle class—a term so vague as to be deceptive. Those “middle class” tax cuts Obama likes to discuss actually reach individuals making up to $250,000. (A quarter of a million, by the way, puts a family in the top 3% of households—decisively not “middle” in any rational sense.) And despite now-infamous 47% comments, Romney hilariously described his upbringing at the GOP convention by saying, “I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country.” Middle, no doubt, is in.

This is just a month after the U.S. Census Bureau released income and poverty figures for 2011. On September 12, the agency revealed the staggering 15% poverty rate, with 46.2 million Americans in poverty. Keep in mind this is according to the OMB’s threshold for poverty, which for a family of four in 2011 was a mere $23,021. Next time a probably-rich HLS student tells you they “need” to make $160,000 defending the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt (and white), try suggesting that (perhaps) they have no idea what “need” means.

More shocking than the general poverty rates is how poverty affects children—especially children of color. Nationally, more than 1 in 5 children lives in poverty. These 16.1 million children are disproportionately black and Hispanic. According to one prominent study, 39 percent of black children and 34 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty. In many states (like Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin), roughly half of all black children live below the poverty level. That’s right: Half.

Such staggering rates explain why, in a recent UNICEF study of 35 wealthy countries, the US came in 34th—between Latvia and Romania. But at least we won the Olympics, right?

You might expect these figures to cause an outcry in a nation that considers itself the best country (company?) in the world. You might expect these figures, which have remained stagnant after three consecutive years of increases, to factor in to the media’s coverage of the presidential race. After all, last year’s figures were just as unconscionable.

Yet a recent study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) confirmed what we already know: the candidates don’t discuss poverty, and the media aren’t helping. The study analyzed six months of campaign coverage by eight prominent news outlets. The results say a lot about our political and “journalistic” culture: only 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive (their word) way, and not a single one of the eight outlets published a substantive discussion of poverty in even 1 percent of its campaign stories.

You might ask, why’s talking about poverty such a big deal? Preach to the middle class, win the election, and then make changes that benefit everyone—including the poor. But talking about poverty is such a big deal because it changes what’s politically possible in America. The more we say “we’re all in this together” but only talk about the middle class, the easier it becomes to believe that “we” doesn’t include the poor. Furthermore, you don’t always win elections (see, e.g., the eighties and the aughts). And if you fail to defend the dignity and humanity of all Americans—especially the poor—when you’re in office, it’s going to be incredibly easy for the right to undercut education, healthcare, and employment programs when they’re in office. No wonder these programs are constantly under attack—even their supposed proponents don’t like to acknowledge the people they’re designed to empower.

It makes sense why politicians and the media focus on appeasing the middle class. First, they’re the bulk of the electorate. Second, in our corporate media market, poverty doesn’t sell. And third, studies reveal that we all like to think of ourselves as middle class—in other countries, too—although more and more Americans now identify themselves as lower class.

These aren’t justifications. And they’re not excuses. They’re obstacles. Recognizing them as such means that we need to be louder and more courageous when it comes to speaking about poverty in America. We need to speak with more conviction and more honesty as we develop a shared vocabulary to discuss the racial gap in economic opportunity. Healing poverty is a moral obligation, and it’s one we’re failing horribly. It’s time to call upon our politicians, journalists, and friends to articulate the “we” in “we’re all in this together.” Otherwise, it will be the middle who inherit the earth—all because we were too meek to tell it like it is.