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by Allan Lichtenstein
THE DEMOCRATIC presidential primaries have been upended by Bernie Sanders’s populist revolution on the “left,” which has tapped into the deep discontent of a broad swath of the population that is still suffering the after-shocks of the Great Recession. Sanders’ success has forced Hillary Clinton to adjust her rhetoric. Claiming she is the real “progressive” who will get “Wall Street to work for Main Street,” Hillary insists she is best equipped to bring about the reforms needed to improve the lives of working families and hard-working Americans.
Both Sanders and Clinton invoke the hardships suffered by the large section of the population that has been bypassed over the seven years of economic recovery. Both candidates draw attention to an electorate that has been shut out of the political process by the billionaire 1 percent class. Both use the term “middle-class” to describe this broad segment of the population, the 99 percent. However, folding the poor, at the bottom end of the 99 percent, into the middle class does not serve the cause of their campaigns. More important, it does nothing to negate the image of the “undeserving poor” and reestablish people living in poverty as full members of our society.
In their campaign strategies, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ignore the pervasiveness of poverty, the unique experience of people living in poverty, the growth in the number of households at the bottom of the income distribution. It is this segment of the population that suffers the greatest hardships and is most likely to be supportive of the safety-net policies the candidates are proposing. It is this group that is most likely to be sympathetic to “populist” rhetoric — but least likely to participate in the election process.
SURPRISINGLY, DESPITE their acknowledgment of the widespread distress felt by a large section of the population, neither Sanders nor Clinton lists the elimination or reduction of poverty as a specific policy goal. Poverty is not a discrete campaign issue on either of their websites; the word “poverty” is absent from the twenty-eight issues listed on Clinton’s campaign website and the twenty-two issues listed on Sanders’. In fact, there has been no discussion of poverty in any of the Democratic Party debates to date. As Eduardo Porter noted in the New York Times in November, both parties, “focusing most of their concern on the middle class, appear to be ignoring the Americans who need their attention most: the deeply, persistently poor.”
Their websites do list a number of different anti-poverty policies — paid family leave, paid sick leave, equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare, increasing the minimum wage, promoting unions, universal preschool, and easing college loan repayments. In addition, Sanders identifies paid vacation, a jobs program, and free post-secondary education, while Clinton lists career and vocational education, increasing college affordability, and rewarding colleges for student outcomes. No doubt, these policies identify serious policy deficiencies that need urgent attention if this country is to become a fair and more equitable society. But the word “poverty” is absent in the wording of these policies.
Indeed, the preoccupation of both Democratic candidates with the hollowing of the middle class is in keeping with an American ethos that portrays the middle class as the backbone of society. A recent Pew analysis shows that hollowing to be very real: The share of the adult population living in middle-income households (defined as having an annual household income between $42,000 and $126,000 in 2014 dollars for a three-person household) declined from 61 percent in 1971 to slightly less than 50 percent in 2015.
This decline of the middle class has meant a polarizing trend along the income spectrum, with a larger share of people clustering at either end. At the lower end of the income scale, the proportion of adults living in households with the lowest incomes grew from 16 percent in 1971 to 20 percent in 2015. (A three-person household in the lowest-income tier had an income of $31,402 or less in 2015.) At the upper end of the income spectrum, the share of adults in the highest-income tier reached 9 percent in 2015, up from 4 percent in 1971. (A three-person household in the highest-income tier had an income of $188,412 or more in 2015.)
Notwithstanding the increase in the percentage of people in the lowest income group, their overall share of aggregate income actually declined slightly over the 44-year period, dropping from 10 percent in 1970 to 9 percent in 2014. By contrast, the share of aggregate income held by high-income households at the upper extreme of the income spectrum escalated from 29 percent in 1970 to 49 percent in 2014! This expansion was at the expense of both the lower class and the middle class. The latter’s share of aggregate income dropped precipitously, falling from a 62 percent share in 1970 to just 43 percent in 2014.
Such polarization has been even more dramatic in the redistribution of wealth. The median net worth of families in the lower-income tier has decreased from $11,544 in 1983 to just $9,465 in 2013 (measured in 2014 dollars). The median net worth of the upper-income tier, however, more than doubled during the same period, soaring from $323,402 in 1983 to $650,074 in 2013. The median net worth for the middle-income tier of families has risen slightly, increasing from $95,879 in 1983 to $98,057 in 2013.
DURING THE GREAT RECESSION, poverty rose sharply. Despite a number of trends indicating improved economic circumstances, poverty remains deeply entrenched and pervasive. The most recent poverty data for 2014 show that 47 million Americans (14.8 percent of the total population) were living in poverty — on less than $24,000 for a two-parent family with two children. Even more distressing is that 21 million Americans (6.6 percent of the total population) were living in deep poverty — less than 50 percent of the official poverty level or $12,000 for a family of four. Since 2007, when the recession began, the number of Americans living in deep poverty has increased by over 5 million people, while over 9 million more people are living in official poverty.
Recent research cataloguing the pervasiveness of poverty is devastating in its revelations. For example, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, in their book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, reveal that there were 1.5 million households, including 3 million children, living on no more than $2 a day in 2011 for seven months or more — the measure used to determine poverty in the underdeveloped world. This number has increased by almost two and a half times since 1996.
Similarly, Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which has received rave reviews in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, describes the “Eviction Industrial Complex” through the lens of an ethnographic study in Milwaukee (see also the New Yorker). He argues that eviction is not only a consequence of poverty but also a cause of poverty, a fact missed by much research. In an op-ed he penned in the New York Times, Desmond writes that the lack of attention to poverty is not a question of affordability but a deliberate preference for allocating public dollars on the affluent rather than the poor: “America stands alone among wealthy democracies in the depth and expanse of its poverty... If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.”
Consider Patrick Sharkey’s book, Stuck in Place, which exposes the huge racial disparities in the geographical incidence of poverty. Sharkey writes that ghetto life appears to be inherited: “For the large majority of black families, the ghettos of the civil rights era have been passed on from parents to children, with little change.” He found that half of all black families have resided in the poorest quarter of American neighborhoods over the past two consecutive generations, compared to about 7 percent of white families.
WHILE THE MIDDLE CLASS suffered extensively during the Great Recession, a recent Pew Research Center opinion poll found glaring differences across social classes when comparing life satisfaction assessments. The lower class was much more likely to say they were not satisfied across a range of issues affecting their life situation, to feel they were falling behind increases in the cost of living, and to view their job prospects negatively. In contrast, the middle class was much more likely to have upgraded their assessment of their personal finances.
A minority of those who self-identified as lower class were “very satisfied with” their housing situation (46 percent), education (43 percent), and current job (40 percent), in contrast to a clear majority expressing satisfaction among the upper and middle classes. The differences in level of satisfaction “with financial situation” were even more stark — 65 percent of the lower class were “not very satisfied with their financial situation”, compared to 70 percent of the middle class and 80 percent of the upper class who were “generally very satisfied with their financial situation”. In addition, 33 percent of the lower class rated their personal financial situation as “poor” and 51 percent as “only fair,” compared to 49 percent of the middle class who rated it as “good” and 6 percent who rated it “excellent.”
The severity of the hardships faced by the lower class was even more glaring when respondents assessed how their family income related to the cost of living. Fully two-thirds of the lower class said they were falling behind the cost of living as opposed to 43 percent of the middle class and only 22 percent of the upper class.
Finally, the lower class had the most negative view of their prospects in the job market. Almost two-thirds of the lower class said jobs were “difficult to find,” compared to 45 percent of the middle class. Moreover, 73 percent said that “good jobs are difficult to find,” compared to 58 percent of the middle class.
SATISFACTION WITH the federal government’s work in the area of poverty was never lower than in 2014. A Gallup poll from May 2015 found that only 16 percent of Americans were satisfied with the federal government’s efforts to address poverty — considerably lower than the 26 percent in 2002 and the 24 percent just before the recession. Poverty ranked last among 20 different areas surveyed regarding public satisfaction with the federal government’s work. Although satisfaction declined more among self-identified Republican and Republican-leaning independents than among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, satisfaction among Democrats shrank from 21 percent in 2013 to 18 percent in 2014. (In 2006, however, during the Bush administration, it was as low as 10 percent.)
Self-identified Democrats support both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s goals to provide more help to the middle class, as does the American public at large. But Democrats are even more supportive of the need to help the poor. The Pew Research Center poll found more support among Democrats for a larger government role in helping the poor than for helping the middle class. Among people identifying as Democrats, 76 percent think the government is not doing enough for the poor, compared to 68 percent for the middle class, while 77 percent think the wealthy benefit from too much help. In addition, just 16 percent of Democrats think the amount of help the government provides the poor is “about right,” compared to 28 percent who think the help received by the middle class is “about right.” Moreover, among Democrats themselves, more than half think the Democratic Party favors the middle class over the poor — 54 percent compared to 23 percent.
Bernie Sanders has emphasized that his success depends on large turnouts, in particular the working class and adults with lower incomes. His message, and increasingly Hillary Clinton’s message, are directed at this demographic, which is likely to be the most sympathetic to their messages. But research shows that voter participation is lower among the poorest Americans, an especially alienated segment of the population.
Not only have the restrictions placed on voting, particularly in many Southern states, disenfranchised potential Democratic voters, but many voting-age adults of this demographic place little value in voting. As Alec MacGillis argued in an op-ed in the New York Times: “They have become profoundly disconnected from the political process.” Sam Fullwood III has posited a theory he calls “reflex of rational non-voting behavior” to explain the lack of interest in voting among poor Americans.
Among too many poor and minority Americans, voting and choosing elected officials just isn’t viewed as essential to their lives.... Little wonder that these voters, the ones who have been rebuked and scorned, are the one who tune out when politicians speak.
This is especially unfortunate because the views and interests of the non-voters are very different from the demographics that are more likely to vote. On issues related to income inequality, nonvoters are more likely to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality than voters. In particular, they are more likely to support spending on the poor — and the gap grows even larger among poor nonvoters.
There seems to be some indication that Bernie’s message is resonating with people with low incomes. As Nate Cohn of the New York Times noted, Bernie’s coalition has been evolving, and his support among less affluent whites has been growing. His surprise victory in the Michigan primary seemed to demonstrate his success in mobilizing working class voters, although this was not sufficient to win Ohio and Illinois.
Turnout in the 2016 Democratic primary is higher than any other turnout since 1996, except 2008, when the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton first contended for the nomination. Nonetheless, through the first twelve primaries only 11.7 percent of eligible voters have voted, which trails the 17 percent turnout for the Republican primaries.
To win over disenchanted voters — or working-class voters who may vote for Donald Trump — both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will need to be more explicit in recognizing the depth of poverty in this country. As Andrew Levison wrote in a New York Times op-ed, polling research shows “many white working-class voters would be willing to support progressive economic policies if they didn’t distrust government’s ability to act in the public interest. Above all, these voters want assurance of meaningful government reform to ensure that policies actually will help people like them.”
Eduardo Porter, also writing in the Times, has noted, “No other advanced nation tolerates the depth of deprivation” allowed in the United States. Over time, while assistance to the poor has increased, families deemed as “undeserving” have experienced a decrease in assistance, while those deemed as “deserving” — the working poor, the segment of the poor promoted by Hillary Clinton — have benefited from increases in assistance.
But crude distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor are unworthy of inclusion in Bernie Sanders’ populist rhetoric and Hillary Clinton’s claim to speak for families suffering the ills of an economy that has failed to provide evidence of an improved future. The poor are deserving of explicit recognition and deserve to have programs directed at reestablishing them as full and equal members of society. They deserve to be brought back into the political process as full-fledged members of society.
Allan Lichtenstein, a contributing writer to our website and magazine, has a Ph.D in urban planning from Rutgers University and has been working in the field of poverty research for nine years. He grew up in South Africa, lived in Israel for sixteen years, and has lived in the U.S. since 1986.