Are Candidates Ignoring the Poor?

President Obama and Governor Romney have discussed the middle class a great deal during the debates, but the candidates haven't spent nearly as much time talking about the poor. To get a read on the state of poverty in America, host Michel Martin talks with Irwin Redlener, of the Children's Health Fund and Timothy Noah, a columnist for The New Republic.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, after a rough and tumble second debate, the presidential candidates threw on their white tie and tails and yukked it up at the Al Smith Dinner last night. That's a tradition. We'll find out whether the Barbershop guys are laughing with them or, dare we suggest it, at them. That's coming up next.

But first, we want to talk about an issue that is no laughing matter. That's poverty. Both President Obama and Governor Romney have been touting what they would do in the next four years to strengthen the economy and help the middle class succeed, but neither has spoken very much about what they would do to help the poor.

We wanted to talk more about why this is and what the candidates, or rather officials, could actually do about poverty. So we've called Timothy Noah. He's been writing about this, including in his book "The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It." He's also a senior editor at The New Republic.

Also with us, Dr. Irwin Redlener. He is the president and co-founder of the Children's Health Fund. That's an organization that advocates for health care to the nation's medically underserved children. He's also a physician and a professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

IRWIN REDLENER: Sure.

TIMOTHY NOAH: Thank you, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So Tim Noah, I'm going to start with you. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate in 2011 was 15 percent and that amounts to about 46.2 million people living in poverty. And that's a very big group of people. So it seems surprising that we haven't heard more about the needs of this very large group of people.

NOAH: Right. There's been a lot of discussion about the effects of the 2008 economic crisis but, you know, one of the most important effects - possibly the most important effect - was a huge surge in the poverty rate. And that has been discussed very little. And to the extent it has been discussed, it's been discussed in horrible, toxic ways.

Like, for example, during the primary season we heard a lot of talk about how Obama was the food stamp president because there had been a surge in food stamp recipients. Well, yeah, there's been a surge in food stamp recipients. Because the economy went south. Of course there was.

MARTIN: Well, why do you call that toxic? Why isn't that a legitimate thing to point out?

NOAH: Because it wasn't meant as a comment on the economy. It was meant as a comment on Obama's support for welfare programs. The idea was that he was fostering dependency.

MARTIN: Dr. Redlener, you have a particular focus on children in poverty.

REDLENER: Right.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask why you have called on the candidates to address children in poverty. And I also want to ask you why you think this issue should matter to the 85 percent of Americans who are not poor.

REDLENER: Exactly. And what you're asking about is really what's been missing in the political conversation. So the number of people in poverty includes about 17 million children. That amounts to basically 22 percent of children who are in the United States.

Children who are in profound poverty and facing all of the adversities of poverty and impoverished communities - like lack of access to healthcare, like regularly going hungry or not having opportunity to get into early education programs - for all of those children, we're facing a particular risk in terms of early childhood and infancy where the brain is developing.

And then another period of time when they're in school and they need to be learning. So if we neglect them now, they'll end up, many of them, being liabilities requiring remediation, and that's just a drag on the economy. So you know, if a political candidate, especially running for the presidency, makes a decision to cut back or even increase spending or funds for the Department of Defense, they would never dream of doing so without buy-in from some significant military personnel.

Yet candidates regularly make these decisions about vast cutbacks in social programs - in my case in children's programs - without ever thinking about or asking anyone about so if I cut back on this particular program, what will be the consequences for children. It's a very different way of dealing with budgeting and policies and priorities. It just struck me how grossly different that approach is.

MARTIN: Well, why is that, though? I mean, do you believe that there is a sense that there is no expertise to be had in this field? Or is there a feeling that people, just by dint of being in public life, are expert themselves in contrast to the military where people believe that there are specific things that one can know or not know? I mean, why do think that is?

REDLENER: Because, well, first of all, there's plenty of expertise in the child development field. But there just has been historically kind of a dismissal of the impact on children of social policy. And, you know, it has to do with sort of our political culture in a certain way that...

NOAH: There's very little political price to be paid when you cut social welfare programs.

REDLENER: Exactly.

NOAH: There's a big political price to be paid if you cut defense indiscriminately.

REDLENER: And I think Timothy is exactly right about that. But that's something I think we need to work on and change. And I don't want to hear a politician anymore say, well, I'm just going to cut 40 percent of the, you know, school lunch program without really understanding what the impact of that is. And that's really what we've been missing.

MARTIN: Tim, just briefly, I do think it is fair to point out that there are analysts from some of the conservative and libertarian research groups that dispute that the numbers are as high as they are. They think that the poverty rate number itself is kind of a cooked number. And I just briefly would like to ask you, do you think that they have a fair point?

NOAH: You know, you can get into an argument about sort of how to weigh in-kind government benefits and all sorts of things, but the bottom line is that I don't think anybody disagrees with the trend. Whatever the level was before, it's much higher now. And I think that is what should attract our attention.

MARTIN: We're talking about poverty and how much attention it is or is not getting from the presidential candidates. Our guests are Timothy Noah - that's who was speaking just now. He's a senior editor for The New Republic. And Dr. Irwin Redlener. He's the president and co-founder of the Children's Health Fund. He's a pediatrician. He also is a professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University.

So Tim Noah, you've written extensively about growing income inequality in this country, so I'd like to spend the last part of our conversation talking about, are there specific trends that are accelerating poverty in this country? And do you have recommendations about specific policies that could alleviate poverty, or even, dare we think about it, end poverty?

NOAH: I do. I should say at the outset that the growth in income inequality over the last 33 years, which is principally what my book is about, is mostly a story about the middle class versus the wealthy. But in looking at some solutions, I propose a number of solutions that would also assist the poor. I think that we need to improve access to education.

Everybody I know who has a three-year-old sends that three-year-old to school every day, but I think only about 40 percent of three-year-olds are going to school every day. Another thing is I think we need to revive the WPA or something like it. It looks as though the economy is not necessarily going to deliver the jobs that are needed by middle class people and by low income people. And I think we need a government jobs program to assist with that.

MARTIN: Dr. Redlener, what are your specific thoughts about what you think should be done to alleviate poverty, particularly in the areas that you're most concerned with?

REDLENER: Right. So my perspective on this is that whatever we do about poverty long-term, step number one must be a focus on children - what they need and how we're going to get it to them, all of them. And it's just absolutely vital that we focus on what we've been talking about, which is early education, but also making sure that children are getting properly nourished, that we don't have hunger in any way at any point in the life of a young child - it just is completely inappropriate and dangerous - and that children have access to medical care. And that's why we really do need to, first priority, understand that we have to protect our children.

Which is why, if I just may add this, you know, when we wrote to both Governor Romney and the president, said what do you plan to do, we were quite...

MARTIN: Wait. Hold on. Hold on. Back up a second.

REDLENER: Sure.

MARTIN: Tell that story. You and who else, presumably a group of...

REDLENER: So here's what happened. Yeah.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

REDLENER: So I called a meeting of a handful of the nation's leading children's advocates in Washington in late spring and we sat in the room and said, what is going on here? There hasn't been one word spoken about children and children in poverty during the course of this campaign. So we resolved to do something about that, to the best we could.

So the six of us wrote a letter to both Governor Romney and to President Obama, asked them three basic questions. First, what are your plans to deal with child poverty long-term? Second, what will you do in the short term to make sure that the safety net programs are stable and secure for kids? And thirdly, what can you do in the first 100 days of the next presidential term to enact some of these policies and programs?

And we went back and forth with the campaigns and after several weeks, after we sent the letter, we got an email from Governor Romney's campaign saying they basically declined to answer the questions.

And this last weekend we got, in contrast, a very extensive, thought-through response from President Obama talking about the kinds of things, first of all, that he has done and that he plans to continue doing and strengthening over the next term.

So there you have it. We have very a different vision about children in poverty and what needs to be done about it, but we are very concerned that somebody running for president does not have any idea that can be articulated and publicized about what they're going to do about this problem.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, setting party aside and even setting the presidency aside, is there any political figure that you can name in the United States today who has taken on the cause of ending poverty seriously?

REDLENER: In order to deal with poverty or the issue of let's say children and poverty, you either need a very moneyed lobby or you need a large voting bloc that suddenly wakes up and says, hey, we're not getting what we deserve here and we're going to act on that. And children, of course, have neither of those.

But the third best hope for children is to have a heroic figure who is unyielding in advocacy for whatever it is, so I'm thinking Bobby Kennedy. I'm thinking Martin Luther King. I'm thinking Paul Wellstone. You know, somebody who can speak from a significant bully pulpit and speak on behalf of those people who are getting marginalized in our society. That's exactly what we are missing today and it's really one of the reasons we've focused on the presidential candidates.

NOAH: I do think it's important to note that while nobody is ascending the bully pulpit, President Obama has done something very significant. He doesn't talk about it very much, but you know, Obamacare does vastly increase Medicaid spending. It's going to be probably the most significant redistributive government program that we've had in decades, but he doesn't want to sell it that way because that's politically unpopular.

Nevertheless, we are going to see a number of low-income people receiving health insurance who were not eligible for it before and that's very important. There is a clear choice in this election.

MARTIN: Timothy Noah is a senior editor for The New Republic. He's the author of the book "The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It." He joined us in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Irwin Redlener is the president and cofounder of the Children's Health Fund. That's an organization that advocates for health care for the nation's medically underserved children. He's also a professor at the School of Public Health at Columbia University and he's a pediatrician and he joined us from our bureau in New York.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

REDLENER: You're very welcome.

NOAH: Thank you.

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