As Poverty Rises, the Poor Must Speak Up!

Last week, the Census Bureau released a shocker: One in seven Americans now live below the poverty level–$10,830 a year for a single adult or $22,050 for a family of four. And while only about 10 percent of whites fell below the poverty level, one in four blacks and Hispanics are now grappling with basic survival.

Figures released last week found Michigan’s poverty rate climbing from just over 12 percent to 14 percent in 2009.  The rate for children rose to 21 percent. The 2009 data for our counties and cities will be released on September 28, but Detroit’s rate stood at 33 percent in 2008 and will, no doubt, go higher.

What was Washington’s response to the dire figures? “We know that a strong middle class leads a strong economy,” President Obama told reporters. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House and Senate had no reaction to the poverty report.

The reluctance of political leaders on both sides of the aisle to directly confront the fact that growing numbers of Americans are slipping into poverty reflects a stubborn reality about our political system: The poor are politically impotent.  There is a general assumption that poor people don’t vote in great numbers; and they definitely are not making campaign contributions. With those two strikes against them, they have become invisible.

But as the economy continues to stall, the “constituency of the poor” is going to continue to grow. In fact, many more people may consider themselves poor even if they don’t show up in the Census Bureau statistics. There has been an 11.6 percent increase in the number of multi-family households in the past two years. A lot of people would be a lot worse off if they didn’t have family members to rely upon.

The chart below illustrates the growth in adult and child food stamp recipients across the tri-county area, which is a leading indicator for future poverty trends.  Many of these people were the voters of elections past who have seen their jobs disappear and their housing values plummet.

Food Stamp Eligibility

Historically, voter turnout holds an inverse relationship to income. In 2008, more than 90 percent of registered voters who made more than $100,000 turned out to vote. Of those making less than $20,000, about half turned out, according to the Washington Post.

(There is one bright spot: African American women. In 2008, they had the highest voter turnout rate among all racial, ethnic and gender groups, according to Pew. Since they are also disproportionately affected by poverty, perhaps they will also participate in November to make their agenda known.) But now with so many middle class voters falling into poverty, there may be unprecedented activism in a previously apathetic constituency.

A 2009 Pew survey found that most Americans believed government should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. But only 48 percent agreed that the government should help the needy even if it increases the national debt. This helps to explain why so few candidates have talked about poverty.

This is not my call to the politicians to show empathy—I am afraid that is just a waste of breath. Rather, this is my call to the disenfranchised—both old and new—to make sure you are registered for the upcoming election.  October 4 is the registration deadline.

While this is an important election for the nation, it is more critical for Michigan.  We will be electing new leadership from the governor to a majority of our state legislators.  Those who are unemployed; those who have lost their homes, or are on the brink of foreclosure; those who have seen their benefits disappear; etc.