This semester, I've incorporated regular discussions regarding the presidential election into a class I’m teaching on state and local government. These weekly conversations are particularly important as the election’s outcome will have a significant impact on concepts central to the course, chief among them being what "approach" to federalism will define the next four years. This is an important question for us to consider, because it's a candidate's understanding of the role of the federal government that will direct how we respond as a nation to the pressing issues facing our communities.
With that said, last night we spent time exploring the incentive to be involved in the political process and the impact that choosing not to be involved has on an individual or group’s interests. It was during this discussion that many of my students commented on the fact that the "middle class" is being addressed by all candidates whereas very little is being said to those Americans living in poverty. Of course, research shows that those living in poverty are less likely to vote than members of the middle class – hence the correlation to time spent discussing issues of importance to middle class Americans.
Today, approximately 13.5% (43.1 million) of Americans are living below the federal poverty line (~$24,000/year – household income). Of those living in poverty, more than 14 million, or 20%, are children. Many researchers argue that this measure of childhood poverty is inaccurate, because it underestimates costs associated with childrearing. Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty points out that as many as 44% of America's "children live in low-income families."
Even more concerning, our Official Poverty Measure (OPM) does not take into account expenses and needs that many of us would consider to be fundamental to human survival and dignity. The OPM uses a simple multiplication of the cost of a "minimum food diet” to determine the poverty line. In other words, our nation develops a poverty threshold without taking into account shelter, clothing, or the costs associated with heat, gas, and electric. Now, think for a moment, if we included those costs in developing the poverty threshold, how many more Americans would be rightly counted as living in a state that many of us would consider unacceptable in the 21st Century?
Under the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which accounts for the living expenses mentioned above, an additional 2.2 million Americans would be counted as living in a state of poverty. Under the SPM, 45.7 million people live in poverty in the United States. In other words, the number of Americans living in poverty is practically equivalent to the entire population of Spain (46.8M).
So next time you hear a presidential candidate talking about the middle class, start asking about those most in need. As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump take the stage on Monday for their first debate, something tells me we will hear very little about a problem that impacts more than 1 out of every 10 Americans.
It's been nearly 50 years since our nation declared a "war on poverty," perhaps it's time for us to recommit ourselves to eradicating a problem that affects so many of our neighbors.
We all must be concerned about poverty in America as the rate of poverty is a measure of the health of the American dream.