Ignoring the nation's poor: A political peril in 2012?

By Jeffrey Buchanan, Oxfam America

The campaign rhetoric and the media coverage of an election focused on our economy have largely overlooked a major national economic shift: the number of working families living under the poverty line grew by over 25% since 2007. A recent study found national media has devoted a mere 0.2% of its election coverage to the challenge of poverty.

Maybe candidates can look away from more working mothers bringing home checks that place their families below the poverty line or one job loss or medical bill away from financial disaster. Maybe they can brush aside the impact of public policy helping struggling families find better opportunity in reducing costs to taxpayers and the economy. But even if you can ignore all this, how can you ignore the politics?

The official poverty rate rose to 15.9% this month. Since 2007, 10.4 million more Americans have seen their incomes fall below the federal poverty mark, $23,500 for a family of four. Now over one in four Americans live either in poverty or near poverty, a number that has grown by 22.6% since 2007, far outpacing the growth even of the nation's Latino population (14.3%), a demographic shift with significant electoral implications.

Most of this campaign's rhetoric has focused on the candidates' plans to create jobs and help the middle class, implying job creation alone is still a ticket into prosperity. But even as unemployment begins to go down slowly, and economic growth improves, the amount of workers and families in poverty continues to rise, a trend economists believe may continue. Research shows that many of the few jobs being created so far in the economic recovery are low and poverty wage jobs, highlighting that job growth alone will not address the plight of hard-working poor families.

In 2008 voters in households earning under $30,000 accounted for 18% of the vote. Despite the recent debate around the voting habits of the 47% of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes, the working poor are among the closest thing in the electorate to political free agents. Working poor and near poor families benefit from policies that have had bipartisan support in the past like the earned income tax credit, a policy created by Republicans and strengthened by Democrats. According to Gallup a full 50% of poor voters are political independents. Voters earning under $20,000 account for a higher percentage (8%) of undecided voters than any other income bracket in recent polls.

Politicians ignore low income working families at their political peril in 2012. Battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia saw a combined rise in the ranks of poor and near poor of 3.7 million since 2007, an increase of 27.9%, well above the national average. In Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia, these newly poor or near poor individuals outnumber the number of voters who made up the margin of victory in each state's 2008 Presidential general election.

Additionally, according to a recent survey by the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, 88 percent of voters across all incomes said a candidate's position on reducing poverty is important in deciding their vote.

Working poor families and the people who care about them make up a significant portion of voters still up for grabs. Democrats and Republicans would do well in the next 41 days to speak to their challenges and offer solutions.

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In order to elevate this discussion, Oxfam America has worked to support a groundbreaking documentary, "The Line," which shines a light on the reality of poverty in America, and especially the working poor. We helped feature Ronnie Duplessis, an oysterman from Davant, LA, who tells his heartbreaking story of the struggle to survive after the BP spill. And we're partnering with Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, and other organizations to help bring this topic into the presidential campaign.

Please join us in spreading the word! Already over 1000 people across the country have agreed to host film screenings already. You can still sign up to host a screening on October 2 and receive a free DVD to premier the film with friends, family, and neighbors! Let’s start the conversation about reducing poverty, increasing economic opportunity, and about the dignity and rights of all of us to prosper.

(Graph via Oxfam America; sources: US Census Bureau, US Election Atlas.org.)