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By the latest numbers, one in six Americans qualifies as poor. That's 46 million people, including 16 million children. The poverty rate is as high as it's been in almost two decades. But throughout the presidential campaign, the poor have received little attention. As part of our series, Solve This, which examines the big problems the next president will face, NPR's Pam Fessler reports on what Mitt Romney and President Obama have said they'll to do reduce poverty.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Running for president the first time, Barack Obama went to a low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and spoke passionately about hunger and poverty. He repeated Bobby Kennedy's question in 1967. How can a country like this allow it?
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The most American answer I can think of to that question is two words: We can't. We can't allow this kind of suffering.
FESSLER: But four years later, neither President Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney has focused much on the poor. Sure they've talked about creating jobs and opportunity, but mostly for the middle class.
MELISSA BOTEACH: The problem is that when politicians talk about jobs, they don't talk about how they're going to reach the most vulnerable people who have been out of work for the longest time.
FESSLER: Melissa Boteach runs Half in Ten, an effort by progressive groups to cut poverty in half in 10 years. The groups are so frustrated that they've launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #talkpoverty to get someone to ask the presidential candidates in the debates what they would do to reduce childhood poverty in their first 100 days. So far, no luck.
BOTEACH: When you don't talk about something, it's hard to build the political will to implement it.
FESSLER: And anti-poverty advocates say they're especially disappointed because President Obama has a good record to run on. They credit him with keeping millions of people out of poverty during the recession. They say he did this with stimulus spending on things such as expanded tax credits for low-income families, unemployment insurance and food stamps. And his affordable health care law will extend Medicaid coverage to millions of additional poor people.
MAYOR KASIM REED: So that suggests that as we go forward, he's going to be able to do more.
FESSLER: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is a strong supporter of the president's reelection.
REED: He has been a fierce defender of the Pell Grant program, which helps working folks access secondary education. He's focused on our technical colleges and two-year universities.
FESSLER: And indeed, the president's campaign aides say this is the president's plan to help the poor, that he's trying to build what he calls in his acceptance speech this summer ladders of opportunity to bring people into the middle class.
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OBAMA: We believe the little girl who's offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college could become the next Steve Jobs, or the scientist who cures cancer or the president of the United States, and it is in our power to give her that chance.
KEVIN HASSETT: If someone's in poverty, what do you do about it? What you do is you fix the economy.
FESSLER: Kevin Hassett with the American Enterprise Institute is an economic adviser to Mitt Romney. Hassett says President Obama's plan is largely to expand government aid. But he says it's this spending that's helping to keep the poor poor and that one only has to look at the poverty rate to see that the policies don't work.
HASSETT: We've got people in poverty that can't find a job that have to rely upon the government safety net, which should be there to protect them. But the reason they have to rely on the government safety net is that we have a president that hasn't thought, geez, you know, being the highest corporate tax place on earth is a bad idea.
FESSLER: Hassett says Romney wants to cut taxes and the size of government so that private sector has more money to create jobs. Still, Hassett says the Romney's committed to preserving the safety net for those who need it. But in a recent video he made for faith-based anti-poverty groups, Romney also had this to say.
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MITT ROMNEY: A strong economy will reduce our budget deficits, and it will reduce poverty as well. But at this point, budget cuts are also going to be necessary, and I intend to make them.
FESSLER: Romney says he supports means testing so safety net benefits will go to the neediest Americans. He also wants to turn programs like Medicaid and job training into block grants for the states, so they can design programs that fit their needs. Obama supporters argue that this will inevitably mean a lot less funding, and fewer poor people getting help.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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