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Poverty: The Big Issue McCain and Obama Ignore

October 15, 2008

Back in February, when John Edwards dropped out of the nomination race, I congratulated the Democratic presidential candidates for ending the issue of poverty in America. Since then, Obama and McCain have joined in a truly bipartisan effort to completely ignore one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century.

If the idea that poverty is a major issue is news to you, here are some basic facts from the latest U.S. Census figures, as reported by Catholic Charities USA:

  • In 2007, 37.3 million people, 12.5% of the population, lived below the official poverty line of $20,614 for a family of four. This was up from 36.5 million in 2006.
  • Children suffer higher rates of poverty – 13.3 million children live in poverty in this country, 24.8% of children in the total US population.
  • Poverty is, of course, not evenly distributed. It is concentrated in inner cities and rural areas, and worse among ethnic minorities than whites. The poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites is 8.2%, while the rate for Hispanics is 21.5%, the rate for Asians is 10.2%, and the rate for African Americans is 24.5%.

Global poverty is much worse. Estimates from various United Nations agencies are that:

  • 1.2 billion people are in “extreme” or “absolute” poverty – defined by the United Nations as an income of less than $1 dollar a day. People at this income level do not have the most basic necessities of life. People do not live at this income level, they suffer miserably and die.
  • Over half of the world’s population – 3 billion people – lives on less than $2 per day. People at this income level live precariously, just barely meet their basic needs. But they still must forgo things like education and basic health care that the developed world would see as a necessity. The smallest misfortune (health issue, job loss, etc.) threatens survival, and rising global food prices are a dire threat.
  • Every year, 6 million children die from malnutrition before their 5th birthday.
  • Over 11 million children die each year from preventable causes like malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia.

Earlier in the year, the threat of rising global food prices to the world’s poor attracted some attention in the media. Back in January, it was widely reported that in Haiti – one of the poorest nations of the world – rising food costs are forcing the poor to literally eat dirt. (That was before the Haiti was repeatedly slammed by severe hurricanes.) But since then, the campaign circus and sorry spectacle of the U.S. government saving Wall St. from its own excesses with $800 billion of taxpayer money has pretty much driven both U.S. and global poverty completely out of the news.

To be fair, when pressed by advocacy groups like the One Campaign, both candidates have pledged to take action against global poverty. McCain’s statements are rather vague, while Obama is much more concrete, promising to double the amount of money we give annually to foreign assistance from $25 billion to $50 billion by 2012, to double funding for the President’s Malaria Initiative, and to increase funding for global maternal and child health and education initiatives. Moreover, poverty relief is a major theme on the Obama campaign’s website: you can find an ambitious plan to fight poverty in the United States, and under the foreign policy section under On Africa, their pledge to double foreign aid. By contrast, I could not even find the word poverty anywhere on the issues section of McCain’s campaign website.

But both candidates and the corporate media have been almost completely silent about domestic or global poverty during the campaign. Anyone following the campaign through the corporate media would understandably believe that there is no such thing as poverty in America, that there is no one below the middle class, and that mass starvation around the world is not a looming threat. The most prominent statement about poverty that I have heard from either campaign during the past few weeks was during the vice-presidential debate, when the candidates were asked what promises their campaigns have made that, given the financial catastrophe, they would not be able to keep. Biden acknowledged that “we might have to slow down is a commitment we made to double foreign assistance. We’ll probably have to slow that down.” In other words, in a financial crisis, the first thing we do is forget the poor. As to McCain/Palin, they are way ahead on these matters as usual – having never really remembered the poor in the first place.

Anyone with a functioning moral compass knows this is wrong. As Christians and Catholics, we know we are called to always put the needs of the poor and the vulnerable first, not just when it’s easy or convenient. Global rocktivist Bono perhaps said it best. At the United Nations to help with efforts to get the G-8 nations to commit to progress on meeting the U.N. Millenium Challenge Goals the day the Wall St. bailout was first announced (back when it was “only” $700 billion), he said that “It’s extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases.” That’s the most pathetic thing of all – that we are unwilling to spend such relatively small money to help the poor while we will dig deep to bail out the privileged.

You can sign the One Campaign’s petition asking both candidates to keep our commitments to address the problem of global poverty.

This post is part of Blog Action Day 08 – Poverty

From the call from Catholic Charities USA:

Blog Action Day an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite all the bloggers, podcasters and videocasters to post about the same topic. This year’s topic is POVERTY.

Join the discussion and post about poverty on your blog or on blogs you read. Give examples of things one person can do to help cut poverty in half by 2020. Share your example of a program that works, get one person to endorse, or help make poverty a priority in the elections. I’m in. Are you?

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