The United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.
Clinton, who was scheduled to speak about her economic plans yesterday near Detroit, is campaigning as an advocate for middle-class families whose fortunes have flagged. She has said much less about helping the millions of Americans who yearn to reach the middle class.
Her Republican rival, Donald Trump, this week also spoke in Detroit on his economic proposals. While their platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs. Neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.
"We don't have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today," says Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor of sociology.
“We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty,” he says. “It should be at the very top of the agenda.”
It is not as if Washington policymakers have forgotten the poor. President Barack Obama and House speaker Paul Ryan have both advocated expanding the earned-income tax credit for childless men and tackling a criminal justice system that has saddled minor offenders with lives of economic struggle.
And Clinton’s policies, although rhetorically geared toward the middle class, would most likely have a broader impact. She has promised an economy that works for “everyone, not just those at the top”. She has called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 an hour, which would directly benefit many lower-income workers.
Her proposals to help the middle class would benefit some lower-income families as well. She has proposed expanding federal subsidies for healthcare, childcare and education, and mandating improved benefits for workers.
"You want more?" Heather Boushey, executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, asks of those who argue Clinton should embrace an explicit anti-poverty agenda.
“That’s great. That is such an audacious statement,” she says. “They want everything, and I am with them. But it is also worth noting that Hillary Clinton is running on the most progressive platform any party has put together.”
Trump said Monday that he would spur economic growth by reducing taxes and regulation, and by renegotiating trade agreements to bring manufacturing back to the US. He also outlined a plan to help some families offset the expense of childcare.
Both Clinton and Trump have said they are focused on creating more and better jobs.
“My primary mission as president will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States,” Clinton said in accepting the Democratic nomination last month.
However, Desmond says it is not enough: the poor face a wide range of other obstacles to economic stability. His own work has focused on a growing shortage of affordable rental housing. In his recent book, Evicted, he showed that evictions are a regular feature of life in lower-income neighbourhoods. Evictions are not just the result of poverty, but of instability, which causes poverty.
Increasing affordable housing was, until recently, a standard pledge for presidential candidates of both parties. Bill Clinton created a "National Home Ownership Strategy". George W Bush announced early in his first term a target of creating 5.5 million new minority homeowners, alongside measures to encourage the construction of rental housing.
But Hillary Clinton did not mention housing in her acceptance speech. Her campaign website highlights 37 issues; housing is not among them, although the campaign issued some proposals in February.
The silence is striking because the problem is growing. There is not a single state where a full-time worker on the minimum wage can rent a market- rate one-bedroom apartment for 30 per cent or less of their income, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. More than 11 million households spend more than half of their income on rent.
Kathryn Edin, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, says it is particularly important to focus on the plight of families without regular income. Federal benefits for workers have steadily expanded, improving the lives of those who have jobs.
Still, Edin says the 1996 deal between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans to curtail cash benefits for needy families had left those without jobs behind.
"When you can't pay the utility bill, you can't pay the rent and you can't buy socks and underwear for your kids, how much does the fact that you have a Medicaid card really do for you?" asks Edin, who wrote about the plight of such families in her 2015 book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.
She says she is disappointed that the 20th anniversary of the “end of welfare” hasn’t sparked a renewed discussion on what should be done instead.
Edin and other advocates also express frustration that both candidates tend to focus on manufacturing, a sector that employs less than 10 per cent of the workforce.
Clinton and Trump have spent less time talking about the service jobs performed by the vast majority of low-wage workers. There were 64,000 steelworkers last year – and 820,000 home health aides.
"Much of what I hear is an argument over who is going to help the working class that's been hurt by globalisation, more than the retail or restaurant worker who is stuck at a low wage," says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“We have to be mindful of where those displaced manufacturing workers have ended up,” he says, “which is in the low-end service sector.”
He does say that Clinton’s proposals could benefit those workers, even if that was not her focus on the campaign trail.
“It’s not at all unusual for people running for president not to talk about poverty because the poor are not necessarily the swing voters you’re trying to pick off,” Bernstein says. “But I actually think a lot of her proposals would help.
“She just doesn’t always connect the dots to poverty and low-income workers.”
– (New York Times)