The Biggest Issue Candidates Ignore

About 45 million Americans, or just under 15 percent of the country's population, are living below the federal poverty line. The official poverty line is so low, however, that many who earn double that still cannot afford basic needs like rent, food and utilities. You would think that such a large group of Americans in crisis would be the subject of frequent speeches and policy statements by our presidential candidates.

I stay away from commenting on partisan politics in this blog. But I can address this topic without coming down on either side. Both major party campaigns have been nearly silent on the issue of poverty in America.

Poverty has played less of a role in our public discourse for some time. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama pledged to end childhood hunger in this country by 2015. Yet in his 2015 State of the Union address, the president used the words "hunger" and "poverty" only once - and then in the context of global poverty. At the time, more than 14 percent of American households were experiencing food insecurity.

Why do our leaders fail to acknowledge this large group of Americans who desperately need their attention? Perhaps it is a numbers game. Fewer than half of eligible people in households earning less than $20,000 a year vote. The middle class, on the other hand, is much on politicians' minds, even as it is shrinking. Robert Griffin, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, told U.S. News & World Report that most people in the country identify as middle class, including many whose income falls far below that level. So the middle class is where the political focus is, almost exclusively. That's a mistake.

Every American should have an interest in reducing poverty. There's a moral interest, of course, in making sure that no one lives in desperate need within the richest society in human history. Self-interest, no matter what our income level, also should compel us to address poverty - because poverty is expensive.

Today, one in five American children lives in poverty. We can't afford that. While many people born in humble circumstances grow up to do great things, early poverty can also set up children for lifetime problems. We know that poverty affects brain development and that children who grow up in poverty can need more special education services and suffer from more health problems than their peers. All of this costs money.

The Educational Testing Service in 2013 calculated that the economic and educational costs of child poverty total half a trillion dollars a year. That is the amount that Hillary Clinton proposes for her infrastructure plan and about half the projected cost of an infrastructure plan released by Donald Trump. Note to presidential hopefuls: If you want to free up resources to develop new programs, address child poverty.

The wonderful thing about this problem is that we already have good tools in place to work on it. Children whose families are enrolled in WIC and SNAP (food stamps) are healthier and less likely to suffer abuse or neglect. The Earned Income Tax Credit lifts families out of poverty. When families participate in home visiting programs, mothers and babies are healthier and children are better prepared for school.

In my own experience distributing diapers, I found that free diapers increase access to early childhood education, which is shown to bolster a child's chances of eventually attending college. Most child care centers require parents to provide diapers and will not accept children without them. Once parents have access to child care, they are able to work and improve the family's lot. I also think it's significant that parents receiving diapers for their infants  and/or toddlers reported that they and their children "felt happier" (62% and  43%,  respectively). The chronic stress of poverty is real - and so are its effects. Anything that we can do to support families in need is important.

The common denominator here is that when we give more resources to families in poverty, they thrive. Thriving people are better able to find work and become self-sufficient. This is not complex policy. This is common sense.

So Secretary Clinton, Mr. Trump and everyone running for office from the local to the national level: What do you propose to do about poverty? It is hugely expensive, in dollars and in human misery. It makes our nation less competitive and less secure. I can see why you'd rather not make stump speeches about it, because poverty comes with such stigma. But you are asking for a job as a leader. I call on you to show your fellow Americans that addressing poverty is the right thing - and the smart thing - to do. That would be true leadership.