The Poverty Credential
Politicians' personal stories about overcoming poverty won’t fuel economic mobility.
As a political junkie, I have been enmeshed in the festivities of this political season. As I watched both conventions and the debates, I became particularly aware of discussion around poverty—both the presence and absence of it.
During the conventions, 10 of 12 prime-time speakers talked about their close personal connection to poverty. Each discussed their policy positions in different ways and explained that their beliefs matched those of other Americans, but nearly all wore their close relationship to the challenges of poverty like a well-earned medal.
All six Republican prime-time speakers discussed their personal experience with poverty and its struggles. Chris Christie, for example, closed his speech with: “Dad grew up in poverty. And after returning from Army service, he worked at the Breyers Ice Cream plant in the 1950s.” Paul Ryan discussed his mother’s challenging journey to building a small business, saying, “She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning.” On the final night, Marco Rubio brought down the house with a speech that focused almost entirely on his tough upbringing: “They never made it big. They were never rich.”
If you had never heard or listened to politics before, you might have come away from the GOP convention with the notion that being a speaker in Tampa meant that you had to have either grown up in poverty or experienced your parents trials and tribulations of being poor. The most valuable political currency was in fact that you once did not have any currency.
Democrats did the same. San Antonio’s Mayor Julian Castro, for example, shared a couple stories, including: “My grandmother spent her whole life working as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter, barely scraping by, but still working hard to give my mother, her only child, a chance in life so that my mother could give my brother and me an even better one.” Michelle Obama included a line on her own and President Obama’s experience with poverty: “Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions.”
It was clear coming from the conventions that the best credential a speaker could have was that they were connected to being poor themselves.
With more than 46 million Americans living in poverty and the convention speeches filled with rags-to-riches stories, I expected to see poverty taking a big space in the discussions by the candidates. Surprisingly, the word “poverty” was mentioned only six times during the debates and was completely absent from moderator questions. The issue of poverty—and poverty policy—took a back seat.
One might gather from all of this that the reason for talking about poverty in politics is either to show that those behind the podium are like those in front of it, or that their ability to make it out of those difficult circumstances demonstrates tenacity or a certain steadfastness in obtaining success. But a look at the widening income inequality gap and areas of economic mobility makes it clear that talk has not translated to real victory for the masses currently living in poverty.
A recent report on the widening income inequality gap in the 2011 Congressional Budget Office report “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007” cites household income growth in the top 1 percent as 275 percent, compared to 65 percent for the next 19 percent, just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and 18 percent for the bottom fifth of households. The report states: "As a result of that uneven income growth, the share of total after-tax income received by the 1 percent of the population in households with the highest income more than doubled between 1979 and 2007, whereas the share received by low- and middle-income households declined.”
In looking at economic mobility, a July 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, titled “Pursuing the American Dream,” states that those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults.
In sum, the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is widening and the ability of the “have-nots” to rise from the bottom of the economic ladder is perhaps more difficult than ever.
The experience of poverty permeates American literature and political speeches from all camps, including the Tea Party and Occupy movements. It could be said that the story of moving out of poverty and into some experience that is the opposite of being poor is as American as apple pie. The 2012 convention speeches will certainly add to the archive, but our current statistical trajectory of income inequality and economic mobility shows that the number of people who will be able to share these experiences is quickly dwindling.
I count myself being one of the lucky few who made it out of deep poverty, and while I share this experience with many of the convention speakers, I would rather bond around the notion of successfully transcending partisan challenges and putting these speaker experiences to use by developing ideas and solutions to this widening problem.
Can we translate all of this to a national bi-partisan dialogue about the traits and trajectories of those able to overcome poverty, and then use that to facilitate ideas and solutions for those who still struggle? Now that would be a good story.
Read more stories by John Brothers.