The Shriver Brief

Election Bodes Well for People in Poverty

The Shriver Center’s mission involves improving the quality of life and opportunities of people living in poverty. From that perspective, here are some initial thoughts on the presidential election.

Yes, as some have argued, it would be good to have a more forthright conversation about poverty in the presidential campaign, to name it as a priority to be addressed, and to hear the competing strategies. The principal framing of both sides on economic issues focused instead on the middle class. Much of that is unavoidable—the taking of advice from pollsters and experts about what messages will work during a particular passage of time to improve the chances of victory. That is a lesson all of us in the advocacy world have been struggling to learn for many years—the point is to win, to actually move the ball, not to deploy more personally satisfying rhetoric. 

A quick reminder about the time we are in helps to explain this middle-class framing. The Great Recession has dramatically blurred the lines between the middle class and people in poverty. Lost jobs, lost homes, lost health insurance, lost savings, lost credit, broken neighborhoods, and the very real threat of all those things for people who have managed to avoid them so far are all signs of the perilous nature of middle-class status. And yet the data tells us that everyone, rich or poor or in the middle, prefers to think of themselves as middle class. For most people in poverty, policies framed as advancing the middle class are policies aimed to help them.

So I’m OK with the framing. Particularly from the Obama side of things, it is hard to argue with success. Far more important than framing is the practical impact that the administration’s policies and economic plans will actually have on the prospects for people in poverty. What can we glean from the campaign and from last night? 

The acceptance speech was a resounding affirmation of the core attitude essential for a positive policy direction for people in poverty: “We are all in this together.” The election was yet another chapter in the major struggle of our times between competing narratives about national political life: “we are all in this together” versus “the primacy of the individual.”  People in poverty, and people in the middle class at risk of falling into poverty, will fare better when the general tide of the times favors the common good, mutual duty and responsibility, and the community as well as the individual.

The first level of translating this public narrative into practical outcomes that help people in poverty is the general attitude about the role of government. The campaign juxtaposed the Tea Party attitude that government is bad—because it is government—against the pragmatic notion that government is crucial to and capable of solving problems. As timely exhibited by the ongoing response to Hurricane Sandy, government can competently address emergencies without partisan rancor. The answer to government failure (Katrina) is not to jettison government but to do the job better (Sandy). What bigger emergency, what more compelling need for a smart pragmatic government role, than the thorny and massive-scale issues of poverty?

As a specific illustration of how winning these high-level arguments can produce pragmatic progress, we will now see the full implementation of health care reform. The Affordable Care Act is the single biggest blow against poverty since the 1960s—half a century, or the whole career of an anti-poverty advocate my age. It hasn’t been framed that way, but that’s what it is. It completes Medicaid, making health coverage available to everybody who is poor, which instantly makes them more employable and productive and opens the path to the middle class. It makes affordable commercial coverage available to the whole economic spectrum well up into the middle class, boosting upward mobility, and instantly eliminating the nightmare of lost coverage, bankruptcy, slow death from untreated conditions, blocked aspirations, and loss of middle-class status. The Affordable Care Act stands as a major rebuttal to those who say President Obama got nothing done, or did nothing to address poverty, in his first term.

The Affordable Care Act is a prime manifestation of “we’re in this together,” and of a pragmatic role for government in solving a major economic issue for people in poverty and the middle class. The leading critique against it took the opposite sides of these arguments—the mandate was “the biggest attack on freedom ever” (primacy of the individual) and the law was “too much government” —and failed.

From public narrative, to the role of government, to specific initiatives, the election can be understood as a promising direction for the prospects for people in poverty. It is not self-executing, however, and there are many obstacles, starting with a Congress probably not convinced that these core arguments are conclusively decided. Looming immediately ahead are the immense issues of the “fiscal cliff” that have profound implications for people in poverty. There is a compelling role for those of us committed to the improvement of the prospects of people living in poverty to help see to it that the promising direction of the election produces that improvement.        

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Jim Bamberger - November 8, 2012 10:11 AM

Thank you, John, for your very thoughtful reflection.

Let us not also forget the competing narratives and corresponding framing of issues in sometimes not too subtle racial terms. Race and poverty are inextricably intertwined in our nation.

One political narrative sought to serve the interests of a narrow racial and ethnic band, while the other understands and spoke with authority on matters relating to the real and permanent demographic shifts in our nation.

It is obvious that policies designed to aggregate wealth and income serve the interests of the current dominant racial and ethnic culture. The mythical narrative of noble self-direction and corresponding success (which premised on the experience and serves the interests of those born with privilege of race and status) was rejected by a nation of voters that grows ever more colorful, ever more diverse, and ever more complex.

The President's victory is important; but even more so is the expanding influence of those not born into racial privilege. These trends (which have been long foreseen) provide the foundation for a more thoughtful, inclusive debate regarding issues of poverty, race, social mobility and opportunity. Whether this debate yields results is up to all of us.

John Bouman - November 9, 2012 8:46 AM

You're right, Jim. That -- the diversity of the new America -- was another major theme. It appears pretty clear that the "we are in this together" theme that succeeded on election day was the theme that resonated best with the country's diverse communities. And the "sanctity of the individual" theme, delivered by a largely white male party defending the interests of the top one percent of the income spectrum, led by a candidate personifying all of that, didn't resonate with them at all. Doesn't seem that complicated, but it was and is a difficult thicket for the republicans.

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