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The Pols Nap as Poverty Expands

August 30, 2004|Douglas MacKinnon

We're deep in another campaign season, and although hot air and predictable conventions may be entertaining for some people, there are 36 million Americans who most likely couldn't care less about the Democrats, the Republicans or the presidential election. They don't believe that either party speaks for them or cares about their fate. They are the poor -- and 1.3 million more joined their ranks last year.

The Census Bureau, in its just-released report on poverty, outlines the utter despair of these Americans. The statistics serve as a slap in the face to decades of government "solutions" and meaningless political rhetoric. Shockingly, the Census Bureau definition of poverty for a family of four is $18,810 per year or less. Do the math and you will quickly find that families that fit into this category cannot survive without help. By far, the most obscene statistic in the new report is that 13 million children are living in poverty.

That number is most troubling to me because my entire childhood was spent in poverty. I grew up on welfare, and I was homeless a number of times. By the age of 17, I had moved 34 times because of evictions.

For me, poverty has never been an academic exercise. In fact, it was because of poverty that I decided, while living in the Democratic stronghold of Dorchester, Mass., to become a Republican.

When I was a child, the Democrats' answer to my and my neighbors' poverty was to give us just enough to exist, but never the means to escape. The Republican mantra of self-responsibility and less government not only made more sense but in theory was the answer. Unfortunately, like most things in life, the theory has been overwhelmed by subjective reality.

Poverty should not be fodder for crass partisan politics. It's a matter of the dignity of human beings -- human beings who, often because of happenstance, find themselves condemned to a lifetime of heartbreak, despair and pain.

And yet, predictably, Sen. John F. Kerry and his campaign have tried to use the latest Census Bureau numbers to indict President Bush and his administration. And truthfully, were a Democrat now president, the Republicans would file the same baseless charges.

Driven by ignorance, partisans on both sides simply can't help themselves. Worse, they live in a bubble of comfort that fuels their ignorance -- their children never go without food, their phone or electricity is never turned off for nonpayment, their worldly possessions are never piled on the sidewalk after an eviction, and a loved one never dies simply because he can't afford proper medical care.

The millions of Americans living below the poverty line represent a huge voting bloc but garner little or no respect from the parties in power. Some Democrats ignore the poor, many of whom are minorities, because they think their vote is in the bag. Some Republicans think the Democrats own the poor, so why pour precious resources into serving an unwinnable demographic? Collectively, both parties mostly ignore the poor because they believe most of them won't vote anyway.

Many of us, sometimes most of us, simply can't identify with the plight of the poor. Well, that may soon change. If certain trends continue, more "middle-class" Americans could find themselves creeping below the poverty line.

Consider the other factor that the Census Bureau's new report measures: the number of American who are uninsured -- 45 million. The National Center for Policy Analysis just released its own report, which finds that "households that earn $50,000 per year, or more, account for about 90% of the increase in the number of uninsured over the last 10 years." Two-thirds of that number come from households earning more that $75,000 per year.

Poverty. Continue to ignore the problem and it could become your life. It's time we were all held accountable.


Douglas MacKinnon is former press secretary to Bob Dole and also a former White House and Pentagon official.

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