Near Silence on Poverty in the Presidential Debate

One of the country's biggest issues went largely ignored in last night's presidential debate.

By Seth Freed Wessler Oct 04, 2012

Between the two of them, Obama and Romney cast about the words middle income or middle class 31 times. Obama referred to the amorphous group of Americans 19 times and Romney 12. That’s about once every three minutes. Meanwhile Obama didn’t mention poor people, low income people, or poverty even once and Romney rattled out the words poor, low income, lower income and poverty seven times, but mostly to attack Obama. He offered no substantive plan for addressing poverty issues.

In a presidential debate about the economy in this time of prolonged economic downturn and high poverty, the near eclipse of explicit talk of poverty and low-income Americans takes work. The candidates actually did talk around poverty quite a lot last night, bur rarely actually named it. Medicaid, school vouchers, food stamps and the unemployed found their way into the scripts, but poor people themselves barely did. Both described the struggling middle-income Americans they’ve run into the on the campaign trail, but not poor folks. Obama offered that he’d like to build "ladders of opportunity into the middle class," but still, no talk of the people at the botton of those ladders.

As noted on the New York Times editorial page:

The two candidates said nothing about poverty in Wednesday’s debate. The political reasons for focusing the campaigns on the middle class are obvious, but that doesn’t change the fact that the candidates are ducking responsibility for neglecting those without a powerful voice at the ballot box, with Mitt Romney treating them with particular disdain.

As the 2007 speech shows, Mr. Obama was once quite passionate about improving the lives of what he called "young men and women without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny other than life on the edge — the edge of the law, the edge of the economy, the edge of family structures and communities."

Indeed, the omission is not terribly surprising, but it is hugely significant because the silence once again draws a line around which kinds of Americans matter. Those who face disproportionate levels of poverty–people of color, single women–are growing demographics who overwhelmingly support Obama. He decided last night to take them for granted.