The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Poll: Voters want leaders to prioritize working poor families and #talkpoverty

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A strong majority of poll respondents across ideological lines believe that the working poor should be a top or important government priority.

Americans recognize a problem when we see it. But what happens when that problem continues to worsen year after year, and leaders are reluctant to speak its name?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers under the federal poverty line rose to a 20 year high in 2010, the last year analyzed. The number of working poor families in America, many who work multiple jobs, has steadily risen each year since 2005, even before the recession.

Still, after three Presidential debates, neither candidate has spoken about how to address this issue. To be fair, Governor Romney has mentioned poverty five times, and President Obama has spoken about those “who want to climb to the middle class” without being explicit. But neither took the opportunity to detail how their policy agenda will help the working poor. Thought leaders as diverse as Michael Reagan, the pundit and son of President Ronald Reagan, the USA Today editorial board, and former Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Lynn Woolsey have each expressed surprise or dismay that the working poor are not a part of this campaign’s debates.

Speaking up for the working poor is not only vital, but it is a winning argument that resonates with a majority of Americans who want to find viable solutions.

Ignoring the issue of poverty is a missed opportunity according to new polling commissioned by the American Values Network. In total, 87 percent of voters, a strong majority of respondents across ideological lines, believe the working poor should be a top or important government priority.

The next Congress and President will make decisions that could significantly impact these families’ income and economic mobility. The survey tested which arguments voters found most compelling in support of policies addressing poverty and for cutting such efforts. When asked to choose between the best argument in support of government initiatives to help struggling families and the best argument for cutting those programs, 58% of respondents found the messages supporting government poverty programs more convincing. Whoever is on Capitol Hill or in the White House after this election should take note.

The poll, conducted among 1005 voters nationwide by the Prime Group between September 26-30, also found voters say candidates who address the issue of poverty as more trustworthy and authentic than those who focus solely on the middle class.

And we’re seeing renewed political interest as American s have come together across the country and online to elevate the discussion of the working poor. Earlier this month, Oxfam joined with Sojourners, World Vision and Bread for the World to launch the documentary film, “The Line”, to highlight the story of hard working American families doing everything right but still struggling in poverty. We could never have imagined the response: over 2,000 screenings in churches, community centers and homes in every state in the union, attended by tens of thousands of people since the film premiered Oct 2. People have gathered to talk about growing poverty in our communities and start a conversation they do not see their leaders having. You can still sign up at http://thelinemovie.com/ to host a screening and join the conversation.

At the film’s premiere, Rev. Jim Wallis encouraged a crowd of 400 in DC plus online viewers to encourage our Presidential candidates to #TalkPoverty and take the conversation to social media. The Half in Ten Campaign has spearheaded the response by grassroots communities who have used Twitter to ask our leaders to discuss their plans for addressing poverty. In 24 hours after the second Presidential debate, these messages reached over 700,000 followers.

Americans care about these issues and they are not afraid to act. But will our leaders listen?

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