Why the Political Mainstream Ignores Poverty

From the November-December 2011 PNL #809

by David Van Arsdale

The Census Bureau reported in September that poverty climbed to 46.2 million – the largest number of poor people on record in the US. Still, while over 15% of US households live in poverty, the mantra of unemployment is the preferred Republican and Democratic discourse. Poverty remains ignored. Here’s why:

To begin with, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counts as employed “all persons who did any work for pay or profit during the survey week.” This includes part-time and temporary workers, who may have worked just 2 of 7 days, and therefore regularly fall below the poverty line. With the largest employers in the US, like Wal-Mart and Target, hiring primarily part-time workers, it’s more politically optimistic to focus on “unemployment.”

The BLS counts 15 million workers as unemployed. Another 36 million are counted as working part-time or temporary. The unemployment rate would nearly triple if we counted these workers unemployed.


Number in poverty and poverty rate

The poverty rate is a stronger indicator of the true employment situation. However, Democrats and Republicans will continue to shun poverty as an indicator of the health of the economy. To admit that we are a country with too much poverty and growing poorer would be to admit that the kinds of jobs currently sustaining our country are not adequate.


If Democrats and Republicans admitted this, they would have to side with the anger of workers like Tashawna Green, a 21-year-old who was recently fired from Target for supporting a union campaign at her Long Island store. Ms. Green was looking to solve the problem of her job producing a life of poverty for her and her child, while her employer earned a record $704 million in profits in the second quarter.

The down economy has been good to our suppliers of affordable goods. After all, the poorer we become the more we depend on them. And the poorer we become and the wealthier our suppliers of cheap goods become, the more our government turns to them for economic and political support.