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More Poverty, Less Concern

Bob Herbert’s column in Saturday’s NY Times about the increase in poverty America but the decrease in concern about it is written almost as if Herbert can’t believe what he is hearing. ( His sense of moral outrage is rare, especially in politics and in mainstream journalism today.

Not only do recent estimates of 48 million Americans living in poverty get routinely ignored, but our political leaders on both sides of the aisle declare that it is the business community, not the impoverished, that needs and deserves our help. President Obama’s choice of investment banker and former Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley as chief-of-staff served to reinforce this for Herbert and others.

With unemployment projected to remain high for at least several more years, there is a legitimate case to be made for creating jobs by helping business. But politicians of both parties used to also at least give lip service to the goal of alleviating the suffering of those below the poverty line. No more. Now, even with 17 million Americans living under $11,000 a year, which is half of the official poverty line, their suffering is in silence, not just metaphorically unimaginable, but literally so. (Try thinking about surviving on under $11,000 a year and see how quickly you give up and think about something easier instead.)

The reason that America’s poor are ignored of course is that being poor also makes them voiceless. They are equipped with none of the tools so essential for building political will in our nation: no Hollywood celebrities, no lobbyists, no political action committees, and no consumer power. This in turn means no media coverage, no Congressional hearings, no Presidential commissions, no poverty czars, and no concerted government action.

Instead the prevailing conventional wisdom is that the focus of all political messaging and action must be squarely on behalf of business and the middle class. And our leaders lack the courage, or perhaps the moral imagination, to represent Americans who have the misfortune of being outside of those politically juicy sweet spots.

Solving poverty has always been a daunting prospect. The causes are complex and often deeply rooted. Solutions can be expensive, require greater shared sacrifice, and don’t always work out as planned. But the essential first step is leadership willing to at least establish poverty reduction as a goal.

The toughest problems to solve are always those that affect people so voiceless there are no markets for solving them. Nonprofit and philanthropic institutions can bridge the gap, but any success they may have can only be sustained by purposefully and simultaneously building political will to scale and sustain the most effective solutions. Social entrepreneurship without political will and improved public policy simply pushes a boulder up a hill that is destined to slide down again.

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