In late August, a few days before George W. Bush delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union led several hundred protesters through the streets of Manhattan on a march in support of poor people’s rights. At the front of the procession, beneath a banner emblazoned with the slogan Disappeared: Hiding the Poor, was Patricia Lewis. A wheelchair-bound African-American woman, Lewis lives in Section 8 housing in Harlem. She was there to protest the Bush Administration’s repeated attempts to slash funding for Section 8, a federal program that provides 2 million low-income familes with housing vouchers each year. But Lewis’s indignation was not directed solely at Bush. A few weeks earlier she’d gone to Boston to serve as a delegate at the Democratic convention. There, too, she’d been appalled at how little the plight of the poor had figured in the speeches of her party’s leaders. “I was very disappointed,” she said.
It’s not hard to fathom why. For all the energy President Bush and John Kerry have expended on courting swing voters over the past six months, neither candidate has paid much attention to a segment of the population whose size has grown steadily in recent years: the poor. According to the latest Census Bureau report, 35.9 million Americans lived in poverty in 2003, the third consecutive year the figure has increased. Of this total, 15.3 million lived in extreme poverty–meaning they subsisted on less than half the official poverty line of $18,810 for a family of four. The number of Americans in the latter category has grown by 3 million since Bush took office. It is the highest level since the Census Bureau began collecting such data three decades ago.
These are trends you would think John Kerry and the Democrats would be taking pains to highlight: The Bush Administration has, after all, staked a lot on the claim that its brand of conservatism is a compassionate one. “In the quiet of American conscience, we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise,” Bush proclaimed in his 2001 inaugural address, this before pushing through two massive tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich.
But while Kerry has not hesitated to tell Americans that Bush’s economic policies are failing them, he has rarely placed the emphasis on how those policies have exacerbated the suffering of the least advantaged. When it comes to poverty, says Arnie Graf of the Industrial Areas Foundation, an alliance of citizens’ organizations founded by the legendary social activist Saul Alinsky, “it feels to us like we have bipartisan neglect. Maybe there’s a tailor-made speech in a particular place, and Kerry speaks to it more than Bush does, but I don’t hear any systematic message.”
To the extent there has been one, the systematic message of the Kerry campaign has revolved not around the poor but “working families” and the middle class: the segment of the population whose travails the Senator from Massachusetts endlessly plays up on the stump, and whose experiences in turn permeate the columns of the liberal pundits and columnists covering him. Recently, during a campaign stop in Florida, Kerry told a crowd he had a message for every “middle-class American family…. I’ve got your back. I’ve got your back because I know what you’re going through.” The choice in the coming election, he explained, is between a President “who gives more and more to those with the most” and a “new choice for the great middle class and all those struggling to join it.” This is the language of liberalism in the era of George W. Bush, a language aimed at swing voters who want better jobs and more affordable healthcare but who don’t necessarily sympathize with the struggles of inner-city residents or the chronically unemployed. It is a poll-tested message geared to addressing the anxieties of the middle class, with the emphasis placed on expanding opportunity for all Americans rather than introducing bold initiatives to benefit and empower those at the bottom of the income scale.