is no question that Hillary Clinton “won” the September
26 Presidential debate. She was knowledgeable, composed,
unflappable, and occasionally even funny. Her opponent, who had the
temerity to criticize her “stamina”, seemed to lack
stamina of his own. By the time the 90-minute debate was over, the
rude, sniffling, frequent water-sipping Mr. Trump looked like a
candidate for enforced bed rest.
Trump was the loser, but he was not the biggest loser. The biggest
losers were the unmentionables, the people who received scant
attention, in the debate. There were 43.1 million poor people in the
United States in 2015, 13.5 percent of the population. Yet they were
barely mentioned. To be sure, moderator Lester Holt started the
conversation between Clinton and Trump by asking a question about
economic inequality. But neither Clinton nor Trump mentioned poverty
or hunger, which remains a problem in the United States. Both talked
about shoring up the middle class.
and Trump aren’t the only ones who avoid highlighting hunger
and poverty when issues of economic inequality are discussed. When
Vice-President Joe Biden was charged with focusing on the middle
class in his “Middle Class Task Force” early in the Obama
Administration, there was a conspicuous silence about the status of
the poor. While President Obama has lots of issues to deal with, the
poor have not been a priority for him.
Census Report that was released on September 13, Income and Poverty
in the United States: 2015, documents improvements in our nation’s
poverty status. Between 2014 and 2015, there were 3.5 million fewer
people in poverty, and the poverty rate dropped quite significantly,
from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent. The poverty rate for African
Americans dropped from 26.4 to 24.1 percent, and child poverty
dropped from 36 percent to 32.7 percent among African Americans.
Clinton or Trump could have talked about this economic good news with
the caveat that while the drop in the poverty level is encouraging,
there is still way too much poverty in our nation. One in five
children under 18 live in poverty, along with one in three African
American children. One in five African American households (and one
in eight households overall) have incomes below $15,000 a year.
Further, there is significant “extreme poverty” in our
country, people who earn less than half the poverty line. Half of
all poor households are among the extreme poor. One in ten African
American households qualifies as extremely poor, which means an
income of less than $12,000 for a family of four.
can someone earn so little? All it takes is a low-wage job with
unstable hours. A minimum wage worker who works full-time, full-year
earns a scant $15,000 a year, but many low-wage jobs aren’t
full-time, full-year. Many low-wage workers get “flexible”
scheduling, which means that their hours of work are not guaranteed.
Sometimes they are called to report for work, but if business is slow
they can be sent home. There are few protections for these workers,
which is why the Fight for Fifteen ($15 an hour) has gained such
his credit, President Obama signed an executive order that requires
federal contractors to pay at least $10 an hour to their workers. He
has also signed an executive order requiring that federal contractors
provide paid sick leave for their employees. Clearly, this
administration is not indifferent to poor people. They just don’t
talk much about them.
the poor should not be our unmentionables. They are the living proof
that our predatory capitalistic system is terribly flawed. Thus,
even as the 2015 report on income and poverty celebrates economic
progress (with incomes finally rising after years of stagnation), it
also suggests that too many hard-working people are living in a state
of economic deprivation. More than 35 percent of African American
households have incomes below $25,000. Many of these families have
incomes above the poverty line, but not by much.
are two more debates, one of which will be conducted as a town hall.
If moderators do not bring up the issue of poverty, perhaps someone
in the audience of the town hall will. While I know that Hillary
Clinton has more compassion for the poor, and has articulated
solutions that will help end poverty (Mr. Trump, on the other hand,
once said the minimum wage was “too high”), I think it
important to hear matters of hunger and poverty addressed in the
context of the Presidential debates. Our flawed economy has pushed
the poor to the margins, but candidates can shed light on their
issues and garner mainstream attention for them.