Poverty: A Dirty and Missing Word at the Political Conventions

Originally publlished on ZNet on September 17, 2012.

There seems to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the poor just don’t matter, President Obama is part of that…. We cannot abide another campaign for the White House where the issue of poverty isn’t raised higher on the American agenda

– PBS Talk Show Host Tavis Smiley, April 19-22, 2012 [[1]] 

Poverty in this country arguably doesn’t get enough attention and the middle class arguably gets too much attention from those of us in the media.

– New York Times economics reporter David Leonhardt, September 12, 2012 [[2]]  

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

– Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr, 1963.[[3]] 

“The true measure of a civilization,” Mahatma Gandhi once said, “is how it treats its weakest members.” Reviewing the recently concluded Republican and Democratic conventions, one has to wonder how the United States is supposed to act on Gandhi’s admonition when its political class can’t even recognize the existence of the nation’s millions of poor people. The conventions richly validated Tavis Smiley’s observation last April that poverty and the poor “just don’t matter” to the nation’s political class. 

The Words They Used  

A New York Times analysis last week [[4]] examined the key words used by speakers at the two quadrennial gatherings. It broke those word choices down as follows: 

Democratic National Convention: Obama – 192 mentions per 25,000 words; Romney – 91; Jobs – 89; Women – 81; Families – 67; Economy- 60; Middle Class – 55;  Health- 42; Fight – 42; Tax – 39; Business – 39; Education – 34; Leadership – 34; Forward – 34; Ryan – 29; Medicare – 28; Vote – 28 Invest – 27; God -25; Success-24;Choice – 23; American Dream – 22 Energy -19; Workers – 19; Hope – 14; War – 13;Fair – 13; Auto industry – 12; Millionaires -6; Wall Street-4; Medicaid – 3; Unemployment – 2

 Republican National Convention: Romney – 109 mentions per 25,000 words; Business – 86; Jobs – 80; Government – 66; Obama- 66; Families – 54; Success-44;Leadership – 53; Economy – 41; God – 35; Tax – 32; Ryan – 31; Small business – 27; Women – 26; Freedom – 23; Debt-21; American Dream – 20; Hope – 19; Unemployment – 17; Regulation – 14; Faith – 11; Obamacare – 11; War – 9;Church – 9; Middle Class – 7;  Invest – 7;Job creators – 5;Workers – 4; Flag-4; Wall Street – 1; Fair – 1; Millionaires – 0

 It is interesting that the Republicans, the more openly business-oriented policy, frequently mentioned the nation’s still high unemployment and the large number of jobless Americans while the Democrats, the supposed party of workers, labor, and the poor, largely avoided the issue. That reflects the Democrats’ partisan calculation that acknowledging the extent of the nation’s unemployment problem works against the president’s re-election.[[5]] 

It is predictable that the G.O.P. didn’t use the word “millionaire” once and mentioned both “Wall Street” and “fair” just once per 25,000 words. The Republicans steer clear of these terms thanks in part to the remarkable financial wealth of their standard-bearer Mitt “Mr. 1%” (really Mr. .001%) Romney. At the same time, it might seem surprising that  the Republicans used the term “middle class” just 7 times per 25,000 words – an indication perhaps of just how radically plutocratic their party has become. By contrast, G.O.P. speakers mentioned “small business” again and again, seeming to absurdly believe that most of the nation’s working citizens are current of future capitalists instead of wage- and salary-earners (employees, that is). 

A Deafening Silence on Poverty 

What strikes me most in the Times’ breakdown of the conventions’ language, however, is the absence of the words “poor” and “poverty.” It seems possible that the Times did not even bother to search for those terms for I know that I heard “poverty” mentioned once in Mitt Romney’s RNC speech, which noted that “nearly one in six Americans is living in poverty” [[6]]). I heard “poverty” used twice (quite weakly) in Bill Clinton’s celebrated DNC oration [[7]], and twice (in very fleeting, and conservatively-framed terms) in Barack Obama’s DNC speech. [[8]]. Like Bill Clinton and unlike the arch-plutocrat Mitt Romney, it worth noting moreover, the president made no direct reference to the actual extent of poverty in the U.S. today. 

Perhaps the mentions of poverty were so scarce as to seem statistically insignificant to the New York Times. Beyond the single reference in Romney’s address, the term was absent from other leading Republican addresses. “Poverty” got no references in either Michelle Obama’s heralded convention address or Julian Castro’s DNC Keynote Address.[[9]] 

By sharp and by now standard contrast, the Democrats used the term “middle class” – mainstream U.S. political culture’s term for just about every American beneath the super-rich – fully 55 times per 25,000 words. 

The deafening silence on poverty might seem unsurprising on the part of the Republicans, the officially plutocratic business party. For their part, the Democrats have obvious partisan reasons to avoid references to poverty and the poor. Their standard-bearer has held the White House for the last three years of recession and weak “recovery.” Rightly or wrongly, Obama now “owns” the nation’s poverty rate in ways that naturally make his campaign and party uncomfortable with reference to poverty and the poor. This discomfort is deepened by the record setting record-setting taxpayer bailouts he and his predecessor extended to the grotesquely opulent financial overlords who crashed the economy in the first place – the Wall Street elites who granted record-setting campaign contributions to Obama in 2008 (a small expenditure for top members of the notorious upper 1 percent that owns more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of its elected officials). 

All About the Middle Class 

Beyond all this lay the disturbing fact that the nation’s political and media class have made poverty into a dirty and racialized word over the last 30-plus years. As Tavis Smiley and his ally the left Princeton professor Cornel West note in their widely read volume The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto

“poverty is regarded [by many Americans] as a personal declaration of failure, a measure of fundamental unworthiness…as a blight on an upstanding community…Like a man with a knife in his back staggering along a crowded street without aid, the poor have been stabbed with the blade of indifference… Politicians have color-coded poverty, making it a black or brown thing [72-72]…..ignoring, denying, and dismissing the poor has become a multimillion dollar enterprise [so that even in the wake of the Great Recession] most [Americans], including the fragile middle class, still ignore the poor, and are defensively inclined to separate themselves from them.”[[10]] 

As a result, the problem of poverty – a central concern alongside the inequality of wealth and power in John Edwards’ bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination [[11]], and in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns for the same prize – is considered a losing proposition for the Democrats. Smiley and West again, from a chapter titled “Poverty of Courage”: 

“What’s missing in today’s political arena are bold advocates for the poor who will risk careers, stature, and political office to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Also absent is the courage to stand against powerful multinational corporations, Wall Street elites, and a socio-political system that blindly favors the rich and the lucky over everyday people….Now, to be sure, most politicians campaigning for the 2012 election – from town councils to the White House – will offer perfectly phrased sound bites on the need to support the middle class. It’s the safest territory…Supporting the middle class has no inherent risk; it demands no special sacrifice. ‘Employing the poor and eradicating poverty’ is verbiage that has not been heard in the White House since President Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office.” (emphasis added) [[12]] 

Payback for Truth-Telling  

In this context, it isn’t just the right that heaps scorn on those who dare to raise the difficult problem of poverty. Last May, the black Democratic Chicago Sun Times columnist and implacable Barack Obama fan Laura Washington published a venomous assault on Smiley and West. “The duo is calling for ‘massive’ jobs, education and social investment programs and a White House summit on poverty,” Washington wrote. “That’s not going to happen,” the columnist intoned – a depressing statement from a woman who for many years ran a journal dedicated to exposing and addressing poverty and racial inequality in and around Chicago (The Chicago Reporter). 

“The last guy to do a poverty tour[[13]],” Washington added, “was 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards, the wealthy personal injury lawyer at the center of a seamy criminal trial. That worked out great for the poor” [[14]] – as if Smiley and West had anything to do with Edwards’ personal corruption. 

It doesn’t get much more mean-spirited than that [[15]]. 

This is just one of many examples of the spiteful payback West and Smiley have received in return for their determination to hold a black Democratic president no less accountable than a white Republican one for ignoring poverty and its cousin inequality.Smiley and West don’t spend a lot of time mentioning the top Cowardly Lion Democratic Party poverty-denier by name in The Rich and the Rest of Us. Still, it is clear as day that they were thinking of the former community organizer Barak Obama when they fashioned the titles of four of their chapters: “Poverty of Affirmation,” “Poverty of Courage,” “Poverty of Compassion,” and “Poverty of Imagination.”  

A Very Big Problem to Deny 

There can be no courageous, compassionate or imaginative new war on the blight of poverty as long the problem is not even affirmed in the first place. 

American poverty is a big problem to deny, it turns out. A recent annual U.S. Census Bureau report was summarized as follows by Daily Beast reporter Matt Zeitlin last Wednesday:

‘1. Poverty was basically unchanged in 2011. In 2011 there were 46.2 million people living in poverty—defined as a family of four with an income of $23,021 or less. The poverty rate was 15 percent, which is basically flat from 2010…’

‘2.Median incomes declined—again. The real median household income in 2011 was $50,054, a 1.5 percent drop from 2010 and an 8.1 percent drop from 2007, the prerecession peak. This also represented an 8.9 percent drop from 1999, the all-time peak. The Census Bureau’s data show that typical households haven’t just experienced a crushing recession, but a lost decade in terms of stagnant incomes.’

‘3. Income inequality went up….In other words, it was a good year for the 1 percent. According to the Gini index, a measure of inequality in which 0 represents total income equality and 1 represents one household having all the income, income inequality was up 1.6 percent in 2011…The broad middle—the two quintiles that included the 40 to 80 percent—saw its share of national income drop from 38 percent to 37.3 percent.’ [[16]]

The Daily Beast might have said six more things. First, the U.S. continued in 2011 as in 2010 to consign more Americans to poverty than in any time since the U.S. government began measuring the problem. .

Second, a record number of Americans within the poverty population – 1 in 15 Americans in  2010 – struggle to get by on less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (that’s less than $11,157 for a family of four).[[17]] 

Third, we also now have a record number of officially designated “near poor” and “low-income” Americans. A Census Bureau report commissioned by the New York Times in the fall of 2011 showed that 1 in 3 Americans lived either in poverty or “near poverty”:  officially poor or at less than 150 percent of the poverty level. [[18]]. As CBS News reported last December, a record number of Americans – nearly 1 in 2 – had fallen into poverty “or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income” Half the population – 150 million – was either officially poor (50 million) or living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (100 million).[[19]] 

Fourth, the United States is now as unequal as it has been at any time since the late 1920s. 

Fifth, the U.S. is and has for some time now been the most unequal country in the advanced industrial world [[20]]

Sixth, there’s an intimate relationship between the remarkable extent of poverty and the remarkable degree of inequality in the U.S. As Joshua Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute explained last year, millions of Americans are worse off because others are better off. Ever since the late 1970s, American economic growth has been slow and unequally distributed. It’s been a deadly combination as the rich have appropriated so much of overall wealth and income expansion that there has been little left over for the rest and the poor have become more numerous and worse off. [[21]]

Which brings to mind two other words the New York Times didn’t bother to check for frequency of mention at the two national conventions: inequality and exploitation. I doubt either word was mentioned more than once or twice at either of the two great capitalist parties’ gatherings.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of numerous books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio). Street was proud to appear alongside Dr. Cornel West in offering a left critique of Obama’s first term on Al Jazeera English’s “Inside Story U.S. 2012” last August.  See a YouTube of this show at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLR_a-Kny90

 Selected Notes

[1] Quotes from “Tavis Smiley and Cornel West on ‘The Rich and the Rest of Us: a Poverty Manifesto,’” Democracy Now! (April 19, 2012), at http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/19/tavis_smiley_cornel_west_on_the and “Meet the Press” (NBC News), April 22, 2012, quoted in Laura Washington, “Smiley, West Leave Facts Behind,” Chicago Sun Times (May 6, 2012).

[2] Public Broadcasting System, NewsHour, “Parsing the Numbers on Income, Poverty and Insurance from Latest U.S. Census,” Margaret Warner interviewing New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt, September 12, 2012 at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec12/censusreport_09-12.html

[3] Quoted in Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (New York, Smiley Books, 2012), 104.

[4] Mike Bostock et al., “At the National Conventions, the Words They Used.” http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/09/06/us/politics/convention-word-counts.html 

[5] For what its worth, I recently heard the liberal hosts of a “progressive” (Democratic Party) radio talk show in the Chicago area tell a caller he was lying when the caller insisted that he had been unable to find a job in the U.S. these days.

[6] Full text of Romney’s acceptance speech at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/30/mitt-romney-speech-text_n_1826619.html Romney did not bother to add that he and his party (and most top Democrats as well) generally understand poverty to be the result of the poor’s own bad “culture” and behavior. See Paul Street, “Romney, Obama and the Darwinism That Substitutes Culture for Genes,” Black Agenda Report (August 8, 2012) at http://blackagendareport.com/content/romney-obama-and-darwinism-substitutes-culture-genes  

[7] Here were Clinton’s two weak references, neither of which touched on the actual extend and depth of poverty in the U.S, today: (1): “It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us;.” (2): “If you want a future of shared prosperity, where the middle class is growing and poverty is declining, where the American Dream is alive and well, and where the United States remains the leading force for peace and prosperity in a highly competitive world, you should vote for Barack Obama.” Full transcript: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/bill-clinton-dnc-speech-full-transcript-article-1.1153058#ixzz260h6bYH6

[8] Here are the president’s two conservative uses of the word “poverty”: (1) “We believe the little girl who’s offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs or the scientist who cures cancer or the president of the United States — (cheers, applause) — and it is in our power to give her that chance”; (2) “We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone. We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves…” Obama used the word “poor” once: “I refuse to ask students to pay more for college or kick children out of Head Start programs to eliminate health insurance for millions of Americans who are poor and elderly or disabled all so those with the most can pay less. I’m not going along with that.”  Full speech transcript: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/transcript-president-obamas-democratic-convention-speech/story?id=17175575.

[9] The day after the second night of the DNC, I copied both Julian Castro’s DNC Keynote Address and Michelle Obama’s DNC speech into a single Word document and searched for some key words. I found that:  “my” (as in “my story,” “my husband,” my grandmother,”…as in “I me me mine”) appeared 55 times. “Barack” appeared 35 times. “American[s]” appeared 17 times. “Opportunity” – 11 times. “God” – 7 times. “Poverty” – appeared 0 times. Zero. “Poor” – zero. “Inequality” – zero. “Unequal” – zero. “Rich” – zero. “Unemployment” – zero. “Unemployed” – zero. “Jobless” – zero. “Workers” – zero. “working people” – zero. “Justice” – zero. “Equality” – zero.

[10]  Smiley and West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 72-73; 91.

[11] Paul Street, “John Edwards’ Forgotten Sin,” ZNet (June 5,2012) at http://www.zcommunications.org/john-edwards-forgotten-sin-by-paul-street

[12] Smiley and West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 114-115.

[13] Last year, Smiley and West undertook an 18-city bus tour designed to highlight the problem of poverty and the plight of the poor in the U.S.

[14] Laura Washington, “Smiley, West Leave the Facts Behind,” Chicago Sun Times, May 6, 2012. For reasons unexplained and taken to be self-evident, Washington’s column mocked West and Smiley for suggesting that Americans who are just two paychecks from poverty should be called “near poor.” See Washington’s impressive bourgeois bio at http://www.suntimes.com/news/washington/2353916-452/story.html. She has not been missing many paydays in the last 30 plus years – that’s for sure.

[15] Well, maybe it does. In a noxious May 29th column, Washington called Smiley and West “racial grandstanders,” “racial panderers,” and “race careerists.” She mocked Smiley for “bleat[ing] that America’s first black president has turned his back on his peeps.” At one point, Washington mocked West for “rail[ing] that Obama is ‘a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats’” and for noting that Obama (in West’s words) “has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.’” Washington offered not a single shred of empirical refutation to show the supposed inaccuracy of West’s description. Laura Washington, “Racial Panderers Wallop Obama,” Chicago Sun Times,  May 29, 2012, updated July 27, 2012, at

http://www.suntimes.com/news/washington/5628038-452/racial-panderers-wallop-obama.html That professor West’s description is factually accurate in basic essentials is a matter of widely published record, including two heavily researched and richly annotated books of my own – Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). See also Paul Street, “Whose Black President? Getting Things Done for the Rich and Powerful,” Counterpunch (July 30, 2011), at http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/07/30/whose-black-president/ Self-damningly enough, Ms. Washington’s May 6th column repeated the egregiously false partisan claim that Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential candidacy “may have been the chief cause of the election of George W. Bush” (emphasis added), ignoring (among other things) the much more important role played by the racist cleansing of voter registration rolls in Florida. On racist vote-roll shenanigans pegged to the denial of the franchise to ex-felons in Florida in 2000, see Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (London: Pluto Press, 2002), “Chapter 1: Jim Crow in Cyberspace: the Untold Story of How They Fixed the Vote in Florida,” 6-43.

[16] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/12/census-bureau-reports-shows-poverty-unchanged-but-incomes-down.html

[17] Ashley Portero, “U.S. Poverty Data: 1 in 15 Live in Extreme Poverty – a Record,” International Business Times (November 4, 2011) at http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/243600/20111104/u-s-poverty-data-1-15-live.htm 

[18] . See Jason DeParle et al., “Older, Suburban, and Struggling,” New York Times, November 18, 2011.

[19] CBS News, “Census Data: Half of U.S. Poor or Low Income,” December 15, 2011 6:25 AM at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57343397/census-data-half-of-u.s-poor-or-low-income/

[20] Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy: A Study of the Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995), 21-25; Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York:  W.W. Norton, 2012), 20-24.

[21]  Josh Bivens, Failure By Design: The Story of America’s Broken Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 70. Bivens reminds us that, “one person’s wage is another person’s cost….A key reason why, for example, lawyers and surgeons saw rapidly rising living standards over the past three decades is precisely because the wages and salaries of the majority of American workers did not rise as rapidly. Because the wages of autoworkers and landscapers grew slowly, cars and lawn-care services became relatively cheap, boosting the living standards of workers not concentrated in those professions. Lawyers, surgeons, and financial professionals could enjoy goods and services that were made cheap because the workers them saw such slow wage growth, all while seeing their own salaries move briskly ahead…having the already privileged grab a growing share of the pie over time simply leaves less of it for everybody else, and given the overall rate of income growth over the last 30 years, the only way that low- and middle-income families could have seen more income growth is if very high-income families saw less…more at the top means less at the middle and bottom.”

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By | 2012-09-30T17:02:50+00:00 September 30th, 2012|Articles|