Poverty in the mind: US midterm elections pursuit of mirage packaged as economy and right to life

Poverty in the mind: US midterm elections pursuit of mirage packaged as economy and right to life


Yep, in a world in which inflation and oil prices reached disastrous levels this year, the latest polls seem to indicate that the Republicans may be taking advantage of that reality – or do I mean un-reality? – just as the midterm elections loom. 

Forget the fact that, as a “conservative” British prime minister demonstrated strikingly just weeks ago how the political right has less than nothing to offer Americans, economically speaking.

Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to be relying on abortion to carry the day on November 8. And – much as I support them on that issue – that’s too bad. Really it is! Senator Bernie Sanders is preparing to “blitz” the country during the final two election weekends, saying just that.

And it’s true, the Democrats can’t let the acolytes of America’s very own potential autocrat (and you know just whom I mean) claim that they can offer an answer to this country’s economic problems.  As Sanders put it earlier this month:

“It would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered… We have more income and wealth inequality than at any time in the modern history of this country, with three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of our nation.

Is there one Republican prepared to raise taxes on billionaires, or do they want to make a bad situation worse by extending Trump’s tax breaks for the rich and repealing the estate tax?”

He’s exactly right, of course. But tell that to America’s billionaires, including (again) you know who, and their party.  In the meantime, if you want a sense of just what that inequality truly means for so many tens of millions of Americans, consider the latest piece on poverty in history’s richest nation by TomDispatch regular Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and author of We Cry Justice.

Ours is an ever more unequal world, even if that subject is ever less attended to in this country. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?, Reverend Martin Luther King wrote tellingly, “The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease. A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through a humble acknowledgment of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.”

Neither exists in this country. Rather than an honest sense of self-awareness when it comes to poverty in the United States, policymakers in Washington and so many states continue to legislate as if inequality weren’t an emergency for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of us.

When it comes to accurately diagnosing what ails America, let alone prescribing a cure, those with the power and resources to lift the load of poverty have fallen desperately short of the mark.

With the midterm elections almost upon us, issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding healthcare, and extending the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit should be front and centre. Instead, as the US faces continued inflation, the likelihood of a global economic recession, and the possibility that Trumpists could seize control of one or both houses of Congress (and the legislatures of a number of states), few candidates bother to talk about poverty, food insecurity or low wages.

If anything, “poor” has become a four-letter word in today’s politics, following decades of trickle-down economics, neoliberalism, stagnant wages, tax cuts for the rich and rising household debt.

The irony of this “attentional violence” towards the poor is that it happens despite the fact that one-third of the American electorate is poor or low-income. (In certain key places and races raise that figure to 40 per cent or more.) After all, in 2020, there were over 85 million poor and low-income people eligible to vote.

More than 50 million potential voters in this low-income electorate cast a ballot in the last presidential election, nearly a third of the votes cast. And they accounted for even higher percentages in key battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, where they turned out in significant numbers to cast ballots for living wages, debt relief, and an economic stimulus.

To address the problems of our surprisingly impoverished democracy, policymakers would have to take seriously the realities of those tens of millions of poor and low-income people, while protecting and expanding voting rights. 

After all, before the pandemic hit, there were 140 million of them: 65 per cent of Latinx people (37.4 million), 60 per cent of Black people (25.9 million), 41 per cent of Asians (7.6 million), and 39.9 per cent of White people (67 million) in the United States.

Forty-five per cent of our women and girls (73.5 million) experience poverty, 52 per cent of our children (39 million), and 42 per cent of our elders (20.8 million). In other words, poverty hurts people of all races, ages, genders, religions, and political parties. 

Given the breadth and depth of depravation, it should be surprising how little attention is being paid to the priorities of poor and low-income voters in these final weeks of election season 2022. Instead, some politicians are blaming inflation and the increasingly precarious economic position of so many on the modestly increasing pay-checks of low-wage workers and pandemic economic stimulus/emergency programs.

That narrative, of course, is wrong and obscures the dramatic effects in these years of Covid supply-chain disruptions, the war in Ukraine and the price gouging of huge corporations extracting record profits from the poor. The few times poverty has hit the news this midterm election season, the headlines have suggested that it’s on the decline, not a significant concern to be urgently addressed by policy initiatives that will be on some ballots this November.

Case in point, in September, the Census Bureau released a report concluding that poverty nationwide had significantly decreased in 2021. Such lower numbers were attributed to an increase in government assistance during the pandemic, especially the enhanced Child Tax Credit implemented in the spring of 2021.

No matter that there’s now proof positive such programmes help lift the load of poverty, too few political candidates are campaigning to extend them this election season.

Similarly, in September, the Biden administration convened the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, hailed as the first of its kind in more than half a century. But while that gathering may have been an historic step forward, the policy solutions it backed were largely cut from the usual mould – with calls for increases in the funding of food programmes, nutritional education and further research.

Missing was an analysis of why poverty and widening inequality exist in the first place and how those realities shape our food system and so much else. Instead, the issue of hunger remained siloed off from a wider investigation of our economy and the ways it’s currently producing massive economic despair, including hunger.

To be sure, we should celebrate the fact that, because of proactive public intervention, millions of people over the last year were lifted above income brackets that would, according to the Census Bureau, qualify them as poor. But in the spirit of Reverend King’s message about diagnosing social problems and prescribing solutions, if we were to look at the formulas for the most commonly accepted measurements of poverty, it quickly becomes apparent that they’re based on a startling underassessment of what people actual need to survive, no less lead decent lives. Indeed, a sea of people are living pay-check to pay-check and crisis to crisis, bobbing above and below the poverty line as we conventionally know it.

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