WEISBROT: Candidates Ignore Poverty in 2000 Elections
The absolute poverty of American presidential politics is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the politics of poverty. The two major party candidates couldn't agree more that the destruction of our most important federal program to help poor children, which absorbed all of one penny from each dollar of federal spending, has been good for all concerned.
The millions of poor mothers and their children who have been hurt by this abdication of federal responsibility might beg to differ. It seems that most of those who have left welfare have remained in poverty, and for many this poverty has actually gotten worse. For example, the average poor child was further below the poverty line in 1998 than in 1995, despite three years of solid economic growth. The number of children receiving food stamps declined by 27 percent, and cash assistance by 36 percent over the same period, far outstripping any reduction in need that is due to economic growth.
When the economy is growing, especially at the fairly rapid pace of recent years, the percentage of people who live below the official poverty line tends to fall. Defenders of "welfare reform" can point to such figures to mask the effect of these policies. But this is grossly misleading, as will become clearer when the economy slows.
The deafening silence of our Democratic and Republican candidates on this issue mirrors the motivation that brought us "welfare reform" in the first place, four years ago. There was never any intention to help the poor. President Clinton wanted to take the last possible remaining issue away from his Republican opponent in the 1996 elections. So he signed a bill that eliminated the 60-year old federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children, turning responsibility (along with block grants) over to the states, and imposing time limits and work requirements.
Interestingly, it is not only the poor who have been left behind in the Age of Greed. According to the latest data, from 1986 to 1997 the real income of 90 percent of American families barely grew at all -- 1.6 percent over the whole period. By contrast, the richest one percent of families saw their income rise by 89 percent. This one eye-opening fact would probably generate much popular discontent if it were more widely known. In fact there is probably a winning electoral coalition that could be drawn from the aggrieved 90 percent, including middle class and poor people who have a common interest in policies that allow everyone to share in the fruits of society's labor.
But Vice President Al Gore is not about to make an issue out of this -- he wants to maintain the illusion that the rising tide of America's longest running economic expansion has lifted everyone's boat. And George W. Bush -- well, for him the rich still have too little. He wants to cut the income taxes of that fortunate one percent by $223 billion over the next 10 years. And of course neither candidate is elected primarily through a direct appeal to the interests of voters: there is the mediating influence of the people and corporations who pay for the TV commercials. Needless to say, most of this money does not come from families in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution.
The savaging of America's poor, including children, has another lesson for the election season: when you try to choose the lesser evil among candidates who lack a commitment to principles or program, you never really know what you bought until the evil has been done. Ironically, it was a Democratic president who got rid of "welfare as we know it," and threw millions of poor families to the mercy of a poverty-wage labor market. George W. Bush's father might not have pulled this off, because he would have been clobbered by many of the same people who stepped aside for Mr. Clinton's assault on the poor.
We have traveled a long way since President Lyndon B. Johnson called upon the country "to declare war on a domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people." That enemy was poverty, not welfare. It is now the norm for pundits and political candidates alike to pretend that the poor do not exist, except as it is necessary for demagogic purposes to tout the "success" of welfare reform. We still have one-sixth of our children in poverty, a proportion no better than 20 years ago, despite a 50 percent increase in income per person. Yet there is little discussion of the real changes that would bring our child poverty rates down to those of most other developed countries: higher wages, federally sponsored child care, and providing the necessary federal assistance to poor families.
Can we spare some of that projected $4.6 trillion federal budget surplus over the next decade to reduce poverty? If not now, when?