Where Are America's Poor?

We had our first presidential debate last week, which focused entirely on the economy, jobs, and entitlements. Yet missing from a conversation about a country in the wake of the worst recession in modern memory was any substantive discussion of those who have been suffering the most: the poor.

We heard both candidates talk about how they would put Americans back to work, but nothing about what to do for those who are out of work or under-employed today.

Unemployment insurance, one of the main lifelines for those between jobs, is slated to expire for millions of Americans at the end of this year. These planned cuts, ignored by our candidates, would mean that those still supporting themselves and their families while actively looking to reenter the workforce will have to make choices between buying food for the week or gas to get to job interviews; covering medical bills or covering mortgage payments.

Unemployment insurance is keeping millions from deeper poverty while the economy recovers, but discussion about it has not risen to any place of importance in this round of presidential politics. For all the talk about America's unemployment rate, there is surprisingly little talk about the lives of America's unemployed -- the actual people.

Instead, what we have been hearing this election cycle is numbers; how many millions are unemployed or what the increases in enrollment for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) are. Statistics are necessary and important, but they also obfuscate.

Relying just on statistics or hopeful messages about future job creation sanitizes the reality of suffering. If we have any hope of helping struggling families, we need to be able to actually recognize them, to hear about them, to understand their struggles, and talk about them.

We cannot sanitize our reality. No. We must confront it. Poverty is a reality, but goes undiscussed even as the programs the poor depend on are facing cuts and changes. Let's not talk about poor people as numbers, but as real human beings with real struggles that we have the ability to help address.

In 2011, 16.7 million children were food insecure, meaning they are not always certain about where their next meal is coming from. Children who are hungry cannot focus in school, have trouble learning, and are more likely to have discipline problems. Yet many have been blasting increased enrollment in SNAP -- which helps millions of families with children afford food for the week -- as though we were not experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression.

If SNAP recipients are just a number, then just saying that this year's number is bigger than last year's can be justification for reducing enrollment. It's a conversation on spending, not lives. But, of course, SNAP recipients are not just a number. The needs of somebody out of work are not less than any other's. Healthy meals are not a luxury; they are simply essential.

Changing the nature of this campaign's discussions on poverty is the goal behind a recent effort by Half in Ten encouraging the candidates and media to "Talk Poverty." The video for this effort combines statements from children about what it feels like to be hungry with clips of presidential candidates answering questions about pizza crust and late night talk show hosts. It's a chilling juxtaposition that should help to return the focus of candidates, media, and voters away from the superficial and back to what the election is actually about.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, in partnership with groups representing the breadth of the American Jewish community, is looking to make poverty understood in a personal way through our annual Food Stamp Challenge. This year, more than one hundred rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish leaders throughout the country are living for one week on $31.50, the average SNAP allotment, to educate themselves and their communities about the program and understand the difficulties of trying to eat healthy, fulfilling meals while on a Spartan budget.

We are a moral nation proud to believe in the words of Genesis that we are all created in the image of God, each of our lives every bit as sacred as the next. We are in the midst of an economic recovery that is most cruel to our unemployed and hungry. There are still more debates in the final few weeks before the election, and many more opportunities for our candidates to remind us not only how much a program costs, but why it matters and who is suffering.

Sanitizing poverty will prevent us from seeing its horrific effects. We must call it what it is, see the faces of those who are living through its agony, and commit ourselves publicly to taking the steps necessary to end it.