Monday, February 18, 2008

The P-Word: Why Hillary and Barack Won't Say It--A Special Presidents Day Post

WHEN JOHN EDWARDS ENDED his candidacy for president, he called for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to pick up the mantle of poverty awareness that he had been carrying pretty much on his own for the past four years. Indeed, Edwards, who brought the issue to the fore in the previous campaign with his notion of "Two Americas," has made the topic of American poverty--especially in the South--his controlling metaphor, particularly through the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his One America Committee. For better or worse, no public figure has devoted more of his energy to addressing systemic causes of poverty than Edwards. That said, I would argue that one reason Edwards never got the traction his candidacy deserved is because he focused too heavily on class during his campaign--a topic that, ironically, America is more uneasy about than race or gender.

Based on the poverty-line calculations developed in the 60s and using the Consumer Price Index as a measuring stick, around 12% of Americans live in poverty or "below the poverty line." However, according to United Nations calculations, which look at people who make less than 50% of the median income, America has a poverty rate of 17%. Yet, when polled, most individual Americans identify as middle class. Few Americans admit to being poor, and even fewer like hearing wealthy people talk about poverty.

Indeed, poverty remains one of the most slippery areas of American social identification. How easy now to pass as not-poor and how critical to be able to do so. One of the most powerful narratives of American mythology is the possibility of wealth--rags to riches, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the self-made man, Horatio Alger, Donald Trump, Ross Perot. After 200 years of Capitalism, a strong strain of class consciousness remains in the American social fabric: if you are poor, that's your choice.

While a person can't help what gender or ethnicity s/he is born into, one can do something about social class. At least, that is the standard line. What's more, if one does not improve his or her social class, there is still a painful aura of failure attached, a laziness label, what we might call the prejudice of the poor.

Writers like Curtis Sittenfeld, George Pelecanos, William Faulkner, Richard Russo, and Robert Pinsky have explored the deep prejudices of economic class in their fiction and poetry, but such conversations have yet to migrate with such complexity to the political realm. It is this profound problem that Edwards sought, like no other public figure, to address, and sadly, because we don't know how to have this conversation, it probably cost him the race.

Why? Americans don't like to be told they are poor, and most poor Americans refuse to publicly support candidates who make poverty such a key issue out of fear of being seen to need an economic safety net. To sign on with Edwards might be to admit to poverty, to confess one cannot acquire on one's own. This is why Obama and Clinton won't say the P-word. Some pundits have criticized both for letting Edwards' poverty message go the way of his candidacy, but both intuit that address poverty issues as "poverty issues" is a dead-end road.

Few White Americans want to be talked to about being poor by a well-off Black man; even more importantly, Obama knows that such a tack may make him come off as an angry Black Man, a better-coiffed Al Sharpton. And, to be truthful, how authoritative can Senator Clinton sound about poverty? She is not herself poor, she has never made poverty part of her senate work, and her husband stole any Clinton-based-poverty thunder years ago.

Obama does have a good record trying to improve impoverished conditions. Right out of Harvard law school, he went to work as a community organizer in one of Chicago's poorer neighborhood. Over the course of his campaign, I suspect he will address issues of poverty without using loaded terms. He will talk about solutions rather than problems, policies rather than poverty.

However, until the stigma of being poor is removed from American popular and social culture, it's hard to envision how a politician can really address the issue. Public perception is as important as law in solving social problems--and neither can tackle the nearly impenetrable mythos of American upward mobility.

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