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Out of the Woods / A 'must' for the White House in 2013

Updated 12:58 pm, Tuesday, November 6, 2012
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In case you did not notice it, one highly critical subject was virtually left out of the 2012 presidential election campaign: Poverty in America.

Barack Obama was boxed in on this issue because poverty levels in America had reached an all-time high in 2012, but neither he nor Mitt Romney paid much attention to the scourge that has left one-third of the nation at or below the poverty line.

It was not until the closing part of the campaign that a Romney video clip surfaced showing him dismissing poverty as a problem when he stated that some 47 percent of Americans were either unable or refused to take responsibility for themselves, thus driving up unemployment and poverty.

Obama himself failed to take any substantive action, even though he initially boldly stated in his inspirational announcement for president in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007: "Let's be the generation that ends poverty."

Some five years later, on January 24, 2012, Obama stated in his State of the Union message: "The defining issue of our time is how to keep the promise of the American dream alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone plays by the same set of rules."

One reason that Obama did not stress poverty is because it was a political hot potato. It conjured up to most people the hot-button issue of race -- of black and Latino people, in particular. As other observers have commented, Obama saw himself as president of all Americans, not just black Americans. As a result, he did not go out of his way to tour the slums of America or to speak out against poverty as other Democratic presidents like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton did.

There was yet another pragmatic reason that neither Obama nor Romney focused on poverty, despite the avalanche of statistics in recent years that show the widening gap between rich and poor. That reason was quite simple: Poverty is not a sexy political subject. It does not attract votes.

In these times of severe recession, poverty fails to grab the attention of the average home owner in America who is too worried about his or her family in terms of the basics of life: food, mortgage or rent, insurance, gasoline, medical payments, and clothing,

Neither does it especially concern the affluent. How many of us in Westport, for example, actually voted for either Obama or Romney because of their views on poverty or social welfare? Very few. Yes, the economy was the overriding issue, but I would venture to say that most of us in Westport did not think of the poor.

We thought of ourselves, of our diminishing portfolios, of the value of our houses, of increasing college tuition costs, of trips we might have to cancel because of budget squeezes, perhaps jobs that some of us have lost, and, of course, of rising medical costs, of expenses involving medical care for one or more parents in nursing facilities, of smarter ways to invest our money.

To be sure, there are still some in Westport out of work and job-hunting while others are still struggling. But the majority of us have not given much thought to these facts:

Poverty climbed steadily to record levels during the Great Recession.

The issuance of food stamps has expanded to proportions that once seemed unthinkable.

The greatest tension in American society today is attributed to the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. The realiable Pew Research Center conducted a survey and found the message, "The increase in income inequality -- branded by the Occupy Wall Street movement and pressed by the Democrats -- may be sweeping into the national consciousness."

Today's crisis is far worse that anyone could have predicted in the 1960s when President Johnson launched his historic War on Poverty. The rising number of homeless in America -- a topic well-publicized in recent years -- clearly illustrates the need for action starting in January.

For the good of the nation, isn't it time we all thought of the big picture?

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com.