There’s little room to talk about jobs and the real economy in DC—where it’s debt and deficit every day, all the time. But what’s completely off the radar is poverty, despite record numbers that will be even bleaker when the Census report releases new data come September.

As of 2009, over 43 million people lived below the poverty line—$22,400 per year for a family of four— including one in five children, and one in four African-American and Hispanic people. Struggling in deep poverty—at less than one-half the poverty line—are 19 million people, including a stunning 6 million people whose only income is food stamps.

While there are indeed some good people in Congress—notably the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus, led by Representative Barbara Lee, which has pressed the White House and leadership to protect “social service programs that serve as a life line for our nation’s low income and poor communities”—there’s a real vacuum in our political and media landscape when it comes to bringing attention to the lives of those who are being hit hardest by this economic crisis.

Enter the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that earns a chunk of its change from wealthy interests enamored by its poverty-denial business. Heritage has gladly stepped into the void again with a (would-be laughable if not for the attention it’s received) report: “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What Is Poverty in the United States Today?”

Using 2005 data, fellows Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield argue that “most of the persons whom the government defines as ‘in poverty’ are not poor”; that they have “amenities” like “a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave…a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone and a coffee maker.” They assert that “the major dietary problem facing poor Americans is eating too much” and that “most poor families stated that they had had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.”

(Here’s a modest proposal for Heritage: if living below the poverty line is so cushy, pay your analysts $22,000 a year to support their families so they will have data that’s more current than 2005 on which to base their flimsy studies.)

It was great to see Stephen Colbert give it a proper skewering, while articulating a lot of normally unspoken right-wing ideas about the poor—ideas that are the real subtext of the Heritage report.

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“A refrigerator and a microwave?” said Colbert. ““They can preserve and heat food? Oolala! I guess the poor are too good for mold and trichinosis.”

He then did a spirited segment with former aide to Senator Robert Kennedy and current Georgetown University law professor (and friend of The Nation) Peter Edelman, asking him to “apologize for the Great Society.”

Instead, Edelman cited the number of people in extreme poverty and noted one of the achievements of the Great Society, the expansion of the food stamp program.

 

“Right now food stamps are really helping people in this country—we have 44 million people that are getting that help and I’m glad we do,” said Edelman. He expressed his concern that “so many people are not paying their fair share for what we need to do in this country.”

“As a rich guy, let me tell you I haven’t seen any poor people around my gated community,” Colbert shot back. “If I don’t see evidence of poor people why should I support helping poor people?”

“That’s a problem,” said Edelman, with a more serious tone, perhaps alluding to the separation people feel from those who are most impoverished.

Colbert went on to ask why the poor choose to be poor and haven’t they heard of the protestant work ethic?

“Are we better than poor people?” Colbert said.

“No.”

“Then why do we have jobs and they don’t?” he said.

It was great to see Colbert and Edelman calling this report out for what it is, and we’re going to see more pushback against the poverty deniers in the coming weeks and months.

Edelman himself will publish what promises to be a major book on poverty in America. He’s also part of a new venture spearheaded by Barbara Ehrenreich and the Institute for Policy Studies—a WPA-style journalism project designed to draw attention to the historic levels of hardship many Americans face in the aftermath of the economic collapse and recession. The project will include at least six journalists in distinct regions of the country, as well as freelance reporters working to put a human face on public policy issues while chronicling peoples’ economic struggles.

And on August 7, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor (and more) Cornel West begin their fifteen-city “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience” to highlight the plight of poor people of all races.

But this week it was Edelman and Colbert who spoke truth to the poverty deniers, and they did it in style. It was reminiscent of the late, great Molly Ivins who said, “Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.”

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