As for the speech, one of the most popular current reactions has been that the president didn't mention al Qaeda, and that this was the first State Of The Union speech in 12 years that didn't refer to that particular bogeyman. I was more interested in another word that didn't appear prominently in the speech. That word was "poverty." I know, I know. All those references to helping the middle-class are sure winners, and they poll extraordinarily well, and they are fine public policy.... But the whole Democratic party emphasis on the middle-class has made me a little itchy ever since Bill Clinton discovered that it was the magic key to getting old white folks to vote for him. Poverty disappeared from the Democratic policy debates and, therefore, from the national political debate entirely....It's true that the word "poverty" showed up only once in the president's speech last night, while "middle class" was uttered seven times. I think Pierce is right that Democrats shy away from the word "poverty," and embrace "middle class," because expressing concern about "poverty" suggests too much interest in helping those people.
You can't call something an anti-poverty program an anti-poverty program any more. The term no longer is politically viable, being an embarrassment to Democrats and anathema to Republicans. Poverty must appear in our national debates only as a dark threat to our embattled middle class. That's the only acceptable way to discuss it -- not as a daily crisis for millions of people, but as a potential crisis for millions more.... Poverty in this country continues to be a deep and serious problem in and of itself, and not merely a condition into which unfortunate one-time members of the middle-class might one day find themselves. It still demands specific solutions to the specific problems it presents.
But Republicans aren't shying away from the word "poverty" quite as much as Pierce thinks -- not that we should praise them for that. In fact, these days it seems as if Republicans absolutely relish the opportunity to say "poverty."
Here's Rand Paul using the word "poverty" eleven times in an op-ed about Ferguson that was much shorter than last night's Obama speech. Of course, Senator Paul's ideas about poverty aren't particularly enlightened:
... we’ve become two separate worlds in which the successful are educated and wait to have children until they are married, and those in poverty are primarily those without higher education and with children outside of marriage.Yes, poverty is a real problem, says the senator -- and it's the fault of the poor.
This message is not a racial one. The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups. Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty.
I have no intention to scold, but escaping the poverty and crime trap will require more than just criminal justice reform. Escaping the poverty trap will require all of us to relearn that not only are we our brother’s keeper, we are our own keeper. While a hand-up can be part of the plan, if the plan doesn’t include the self-discovery of education, work, and the self-esteem that comes with work, the cycle of poverty will continue.
Mitt Romney is also focused on poverty these days -- but he doesn't think it's the fault of the poor. He thinks it's the fault of liberalism:
Mitt Romney stressed the need to sharply reduce poverty in America Friday night during a speech to members of the Republican National Committee.In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, Paul Ryan claimed to have identified "A Better Way Up From Poverty." (The key step, of course: "unwind the cycle of dependency on government.")
“Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before,” the former Massachusetts governor told a large crowd aboard the USS Midway Museum on San Diego Bay.
He said only Republican and conservative principles, such as focusing on education, fostering strong families and creating jobs, could solve a problem that President Lyndon Johnson first tackled 50 years ago.
“His heart was in the right place, but his policies didn’t work,” said Romney, contending Obama has failed in similar fashion to Johnson. “Their liberal policies are good for a campaign every four years, but they don’t get the job done.”
On the right, it's hip to talk about poverty -- in pretty much the same way it's popular in some corners of the right to talk about racism. Right-wingers are eager to decry racism -- which they define as any attempt by liberals to bring up the subject of race. Similarly, for the Republicans I've just quoted, poverty is exclusively caused by liberal culture -- either government programs meant to eradicate it or tolerance of sex and procreation outside of marriage.
Maybe a future Democrat will reclaim the word "poverty." But for now, discussing poverty is more or less a one-way taboo -- off limits for the people who actually care about eradicating it, acceptable coming from people who don't really give a damn about it.