It is an ongoing criticism this election season that the problem of poverty in the United States is not being addressed by either campaign. The Circle of Protection—an ad hoc coalition of religious groups organized to protect antipoverty programs—prodded the presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to speak to the issue. On Sept. 12 both candidates did so in video presentations released along with the Census Bureau’s annual report on U.S. poverty.
According to the report, 15 percent of Americans—including one in five children—lived in poverty in 2011. The census data was accompanied by a U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement that 14.9 percent of American households—including 16.7 million children—suffered from food insecurity in 2011.
“Last year,” the president said in his video, “I promised to protect vital assistance for the least of these. I’ve kept that promise.
“We can pay down our debt in a balanced and responsible way, but we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable and certainly can’t ask the poor, the sick or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more...just so we can offer massive new tax cuts to those who’ve been blessed with the most.”
“A strong economy will reduce our budget deficits, and it will reduce poverty as well,” said Romney. “But at this point, budget cuts are also going to be necessary and I intend to make them. Here you have my word: I’ll proceed carefully.... Our government rightfully provides a safety net...and we have a responsibility to keep it intact for future generations.”
The candidates “agreed on a lot of things,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World: “the importance of jobs, the importance of charity, the importance of government programs. But they also both agreed to not talk about poor people in other countries.... For us, as people of faith, compassion doesn’t stop at the border.”
Meanwhile the best that could be said about the census report was that it could have been worse—and was widely expected to be so. More than 46 million Americans are living below the federal poverty threshold, but 2011 became the first year since 2007 that did not record a significant increase in poverty. “With poverty holding at such a high rate, the importance of federal safety net programs is clear,” said Beckmann.
The official poverty numbers do not account for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program), the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Child Tax Credit. If the data accounted for SNAP, it would show 3.9 million fewer people in poverty, including 1.7 million children. If it accounted for the E.I.T.C., the number of people in poverty would fall by 5.7 million people, including 3.1 million children.
“Federally funded programs play a tremendous role in reducing poverty and helping to keep hunger at bay, but the official data often excludes their impact,” said Beckmann. “As Congress works to reduce the deficit, we urge members to not cut these programs, as it would do more harm than good as our economy continues to rebound.”