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Shawn Vestal: As politicians talk, the poor get poorer

It’s been so refreshing during this political season to hear the candidates grapple seriously with one of the most pressing concerns facing America today: poverty.

Just kidding!

People at the bottom have been buried by the recession, by the post-recession stagnation, and by an avalanche of nonchalance. The national poverty rate has been stuck at nearly 16 percent, the highest point in 20 years and one of the highest points in this half-century. This has entered the political debate mostly in terms of sorrowfully underinformed questions: Why aren’t these moochers paying federal income taxes? Why are food stamps forcing us to borrow from China? Why are we “rewarding” failure with such lavish subsistence?

The number of children in poverty is enormous: 15.5 million. When you narrow it down to the youngest children of single mothers, what you see is epidemic: 57 percent of children age 6 and younger with single mothers are living in poverty.

Is this a momentary problem, you think? Something that will clear up once the economy bounces back? Or might it be a situation worth pondering, discussing, debating – a situation worth, I don’t know, mentioning?

Perhaps not. Candidates do talk about the economy, and their prescriptions for improving it – and of course, a thriving economy with more jobs is crucial. And Paul Ryan did stage a brief speech on poverty this week, though his past budget proposals have been greeted with great alarm by people who actually work with the poor. But in our political discourse, when we talk about suffering, we’re almost always talking only about the middle class or business owners.

In three presidential debates, poverty and the poor were mentioned 12 times – all as points of attack by Romney against Obama. While jobs and the economy and unemployment and tax policy were all discussed – and all have a bearing on poverty – the number of times that either candidate seriously engaged poverty as an issue, as a worthy subject for public policy beyond the downward trickle, as a potential target for action of any kind, was precisely zero – not counting Mitt Romney’s suggestion that we make sure kids understand they should get married before having kids of their own.

It ain’t much of a poverty plan – assuming, as it does, that low-income single parents are merely lacking obvious, simplistic bromides about what they should have done before the irreversible arrival of their child – but it was the only one on show.

The middle class were mentioned by both candidates with seemingly every other breath. You might think that what we have on our hands is strictly a middle-class crisis. That the very real erosion of incomes in the middle of the heap – ongoing for recent decades, and accelerated since the recession – is pretty much the only economic issue facing the nation. This burying of the middle class has developed bizarre mission creep; Mitt Romney thinks that people making $250,000 a year are among the buried.

By the time one of these guys is president, we will have parsed and dickered our heads off about people who make $250,000. We will have debated into the ground whether we should tax them more or simply unfetter their job-creating hearts. We will have discussed whether or not they are even “rich” – some people insist on putting irony quotes around the word, as if making more than 98 percent of the country does not make you rich – and hammered it out over class warfare.

And neither of the presidential candidates – nor the candidates for Washington governor, or House or Senate in Olympia or D.C., or dog catcher – will have much if anything to say about the very large number of people earning 10 or 20 times less than that.

As American incomes have diverged ever more over the past decades, and as the value of work has been driven downward, almost every class in the country has stalled or worsened but the upper class. It is not a question of people succeeding or failing, making or taking – the economic reward for the “least valuable” work has gone steadily down as the economic reward for the “most valuable” work has gone rapidly up. What this means at the very bottom is this: The proportion of Americans living at half the poverty rate – on $2 a day, before benefits – has risen by 31 percent since 1996, according to a National Poverty Center report.

Work is “worth” less, and this is a long-term issue. This is true in the middle class, where median incomes of working people have gone down in real terms by more than $4,000 in recent years. It is reflected in the fact that as the number of people returning to work increases slightly, average incomes still drop. It is reflected in the number of people who work, but still fall below the government’s poverty level.

There isn’t much question about what happens to a lot of kids who grow up in poverty. Less likely to finish school. More likely to go to jail. Less likely to be healthy. More likely to be obese. More likely to be abused. More likely to commit suicide. Less likely to live happy, productive lives, and more likely to live unhappy lives that are bad for them and costly for society – and which often reboot the same cycle for their kids, who begin to show signs of their disadvantage before they even leave the womb.

These are not certainties. People can and do overcome poverty. But these trends are, in broad terms, inarguable.

Not that anyone wants to argue – let alone mention – them on the campaign trail.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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