Who Will Speak of the Poor?

The Silence at the Center of Our Politics

The plight of the middle class is shaping up to be a focus of the 2012 presidential campaign. This is as it should be, given the struggles of working families during the Great Recession, with its continuing high unemployment rates and depressed housing market. There is also likely to be some attention on the very rich, and especially on the question of whether they pay their fair share of taxes. This welcome development is partly the result of the Occupy movement’s campaign against the appalling growth in inequality over the past two decades. Interestingly, it is also partly the result of allegations of “vulture capitalism” made against Republican presidential hopefuls by other Republican presidential hopefuls.

But there has been little talk about the plight of the poor, candidate Romney’s momentarily infamous “I’m not concerned about the very poor” remark notwithstanding. (His intent was to highlight his concern for the middle class.) And pretty much the only talk about safety nets for the poor has been to decry them as budget-busters and character-destroyers.

Frankly, this seems to me unconscionable. In 2010 the number of Americans in poverty was higher than it had ever been before, and the poverty rate, at 15 percent, was higher than it had been in thirty years. One can argue about the ways we define and count the poor, but behind the government statistics are tens of millions of...

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About the Author

Mary Jo Bane is the Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she has been on the faculty since 1981. From 1993 to 1996 she was assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.