The Abstraction of Poverty Is Making Our Policies Poor


No ink has been spared and no caricature avoided as columnists and pundits have discussed the wealth stockpiled by GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney.

It got us thinking. Being out of touch with the reality of living below the poverty line is often used as a campaign strategy, but is it really a problem owned by either political party?

So far this election season, Republican candidates have proven themselves, at best, unaware that the number of Americans living on two dollars per day has more than doubled since 1996, and at worst, uncaring that this is so. But it’s not immediately apparent that Democrats are any more engaged. We strongly suspect that the so-called Left spends almost as little time thinking in solution-based ways about eradicating poverty as do wealthy Republicans like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum who have, at various times and in various ways in the last few months, intimated that the poor would do well to help themselves out of poverty by just getting a job.

The Obama administration, for its part, has pursued a sort of “rising tide” policy premised on the belief that increased economic opportunity for the largest number of American citizens will provide poverty relief by lifting all boats, including those of the poor and struggling. Sure, the unemployment rate has stagnated, but the numbers of American citizens living in poverty far surpasses the numbers of jobs created on a monthly basis. 

Plus, the administration’s approach fails to acknowledge that not everyone has a boat that is sea worthy; too many Americans are drowning without the cultural capital—high school and college diplomas, access to professional networks, financial safety nets etc.—that serves as a life vest for so many of us in the middle classes when we struggle. According to a recently released report from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, 1.46 million American families, and 14 percent of all American children, are living in extreme poverty. The numbers are even more bleak if we include high priced urban areas, such as New York City, where almost 25 percent of children are living below the poverty line.

Just as neglect of the poor turns out to be non-partisan, poverty itself knows no boundaries. According to the National Poverty Center, 22 percent of America’s poor are Latino, 25 percent are black, and 45 percent are white.

So why, we’re left wondering, is the stunning increase in the levels of poverty so muted during this campaign season? Why are the solutions coming out of either party so hard to find?

Let’s face it. America is still economically segregated—both by design and by choice. That’s not just a reality that puts our politicians “out of touch,” but it’s a reality that makes many of us—thought leaders, policy makers, educators included—less equipped to do our jobs well and bring about the kind of justice we purport to believe in. 

We see this in education policy, where everyone has an opinion and few take the time to talk with teachers, parents, and children in the failing classrooms so often reviled and reformed. We see this in criminal justice policy, where punishment, not rehabilitation continues to be the disasterous priority—largely owing to the dehumanization of those who have committed non-violent crimes. We see this in economic policy, where so much energy and attention is paid to those with loud lobbies, but little is heard from those who need small, but potentially transformative government aid or protection.

If those making decisions about poor people’s lives actually knew and loved real poor people, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be making more informed, compassionate, and effective choices. Likewise, if those narrating the world were actually intimate with the stories of real poor people, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be painting a more complex picture. Our politicians are, indeed, out of touch, but so are most of us who have a 401K or a college diploma of our own.

The abstraction of poverty breeds inequality. It keeps us separate. It keeps us vulnerable to the influence of shallow partisan punditry. And it distracts us from the real issue—that as advocate and author Eric Liu says, “We are all better off when we are all better off.”

We would add, we are all better off when we are all actually in relationship, not purporting to know what’s best for one another based on social theories and cacophonous debates. When those of us running for office, architecting policies, and producing media no longer consider poor people a demographic category, but our friends, family, and neighbors, real progress will be possible. 

Via the Op-Ed Project's Public Voices Fellowship Program at Princeton University.

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