As the year unfolded, however, it became clear that the very poor were not the only ones feeling the squeeze. In September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York City and burned outward, inciting frustrated protestors from diverse income brackets to take to the streets. These “99 percenters” brought the U.S. inequality gap to the forefront of national discussion in a country where the top 1 percent of its richest individuals controls nearly a quarter of its income. As the U.S. rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer and the middle class has gotten smaller, a reality acknowledged last year by all brands of political commentators.
In light of the year we’ve had, these presidential campaigns seem strangely out of touch. Four candidates outlasted the mire of early Republican primary season: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Since the first two have dropped out and the last has decided to run on an independent ticket, Mitt Romney is a lock-in for the Republican candidacy. At the beginning of the year, however, matters weren’t so clear. Media outlets narrowed an increasingly bright spotlight onto favorites Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum, churning up momentum and bringing key issues of this election season to both candidate and voter. Poverty was not one of them.
Even when poverty did appear in campaign speeches, its portrait was none too flattering. Gingrich, who disparagingly referred to Barack Obama as the “food stamp president,” took fire for a comment he made on Dec. 1 during a campaign stop in Iowa: “Start with the following two facts,” he said. “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.” His solution? “You have kids who are required under law to go to school. They have no money (. . .) What if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?” Instead of examining the root of problems facing disadvantaged children—social factors, a broken school system, and a comparative lack of investment in their education—Gingrich suggested handing them a broom so that “they (don’t) have to become a pimp or a prostitute or a drug dealer, but (have) money on their own.” He then clarified: “Now that’s not a casual comment. It actually grows out of a lot of thinking over many years of trying to figure out how do we break out people trapped in poverty who have no habits of work.” Cue the mopping of brows now.
The former House Speaker is not alone in addressing a mere caricature of poverty. Upon winning the Florida primary, Romney said, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it (. . .) I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” When journalist Soledad O’Brien asked him to explain, he added, “The challenge right now—we will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question it’s not good being poor and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans.” And upon being pressured further: “We have a very ample safety net. And we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.”
On television, Romney indicated that almost 15 percent of the nation’s population–those receiving food assistance alone—are separate from “the very heart of America,” and didn’t seem to recognize anything unfair about it. He remained cool even when pushed to elaborate by O’Brien: he can – nay, will – simply “fix” the holes in the safety net for the very poor. This policy position is only a little less irrational than former opponent Newt Gingrich’s proposed moon colonies.
Rick Santorum dismissed welfare as chronic reliance. Scaling back federal programs, he thought, “(. . .) didn’t just cut the rolls, it saved lives” by giving the poor “(. . .) something that dependency doesn’t give: hope.” It’s true – the ex-senator’s idea of tough love has indeed slashed names off of government assistance lists. While fewer people are receiving aid, however, more people are falling into poverty than ever before. These families thrown out of government programs haven’t suddenly become wealthier. They’re surviving on even less.
Who are the poor in the eyes of a potential President of the United States, according to these comments? They’re chronically lazy and have an urge to break the law. They aren’t a part of our national identity. They like to rely on the state—like it so much, in fact, that for their own good they must be forced against their will to take care of themselves. And just that simply, all three candidates labeled the poor as the “other,” ostracizing millions of people from their visions of the United States.
How, then, do we explain these campaigns? Are they conspiracies driven by teams determined to systematically overlook the poor? Probably not.
By facilitating communication between candidates and the public they represent, the media have unparalleled control over the substance of presidential campaigns. The poor don’t appear in candidate dialogue because the media’s coverage scarcely touches them, relegating them to the election’s edge as a lurking figure that yes, exists, but isn’t an activate participant in the public forum. Who are the poor? What do they look like? What are their concerns? Where do they come from? What do they think about presidential nominees, and why? The organizations we rely on to inform us about our world don’t tell us. We don’t know the poor, and neither do the candidates vying for the highest office in the country.
This phenomenon is a natural result of the conditions under which the U.S. media operate. They’re members of a market economy, which means that their customers vote with their dollars. Unfortunately and unavoidably, the market scheme has spread from the media’s private operation structure to its public service practice. Newspapers and television networks rake in money by catering to issues people with money care about, quietly sidelining U.S. families who lack the capability to spend. The voice of the poor is so muted in this election that it almost doesn’t show up at all.
So, yes, candidate talk about U.S. poverty is out of step with reality. With financial concerns preventing the media we rely on from fully portraying that reality, how can it be any other way?
A change that we all witnessed began to sweep the country in 2011. As more people than ever are affected by the U.S. inequality gap, the nation’s image of the poor has been transformed, a shift not reflected in media coverage shackled to the free market model. This fault is even more visible during election season. The poor should expect to 1) be recognized as diverse, 2) be consulted for their opinions on issues that affect them, and 3) be permitted a voice to give those opinions weight in the public sphere. We assume that the media fulfill this function, but it’s unreasonable to expect cash-driven businesses to operate in broad public interest. As creators of a unique product with a social purpose meant for everyone – information – the media can’t be left to the dollar alone. They require a structural change to avoid the oversimplicity with which they far too often treat poverty.
Many other nations provide their communications industries with some form of subsidy to ensure the full representation of their societies in the public forum. As revealed by the 2012 election, the United States still lacks a similar mechanism.
Let’s develop one.
Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum were simply responding to what they heard in the communication lines between themselves and the poor: silence. To express the inequality and poverty seen so clearly over the past year, the media will have to venture beyond the boundaries of the free market and include even those without money in their coverage. Performing their job well requires some kind of supplement to the invisible hand of classical economics, which was never supposed to guide representative politics.
Who knows? There could be room for campaign season to be a little more expressive of all of us.