As presidential candidates — Democrats and Republicans — actively pursue middle-class voters, there is growing evidence that when it comes to the issue of supporting the poor, they may be well behind public opinion. In this era of extensive polling, perhaps this new data will force the would-be presidents to follow the lead of their followers.
In a recent article on how Democratic candidates are speaking to the needs of the poor, Washington Post reporter Alec MacGillis concluded, "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who has upset some poverty advocates by supporting tougher welfare work rules, talks about helping the poor by raising the minimum wage, reforming immigration and promoting savings. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., proposes expanding the earned-income tax credit and subsidizing temporary jobs but leavens this with calls for more personal responsibility, particularly among African Americans. Edwards, on the other hand, calls poverty 'morally wrong' and a 'national shame,' and he proposes paying for his plan by immediately repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich." To be fair to underdog Dennis Kucinich, his anti-poverty proposals are bold, rivaling those of Edwards.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, reveals some startling findings. Chief among them: "Support for government programs to help disadvantaged Americans, as well as sympathy for the plight of the poor, have surged since 1994 and returned to the levels last seen in 1990 prior to welfare reform, with gains occurring among virtually every major social, political and demographic group."
The report found that the biggest gain occurred among political conservatives, Southern Whites and older Americans. In 1993, only 28 percent of conservatives agreed with the following statement: "The government should help more needy people even when it means going deeper into debt." By 2007, however, that figure had risen to 48 percent.
Concurrently, there was an increase in the number of Whites who sympathize with the plight of the poor. In 1994, only 35 percent of Whites agreed that the poor "have it hard." Today, almost half – 49 percent – agree with that sentiment. The share of Whites who say the poor "have it easy" declined from 56 percent to 37 percent over that same period.
The softening attitudes of Whites toward the poor still trail those of African Americans. In 1994, for example, 65 percent of Blacks said the poor have hard lives. In 2005, that figure was virtually unchanged at 64 percent.
Overall support for the poor was measured by those who agreed with three statements: The government should help the needy, even if debt increases; food and shelter should be guaranteed by the government to all people and the government should take care of people who can't take care of themselves.
Using that measurement, the greatest gain in support from 1994 and 2007 was among those 65 and older, a jump from 16 percent to 38 percent. Those in the lowest income quartile ($19,000 or less) improved from 29 percent to 38 percent. Support in the South increased from 29 percent to 49 percent. College graduates' support increased from 20 percent to 36 percent. And support from Independents improved by 15 percent (from 27 percent to 42 percent), Democrats by 14 percent (from 41 percent to 55 percent) and Republicans by 9 percent, from 16 percent to 25 percent.
There are 37 million people living in poverty, about 13.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. The poverty rate declined every year of the Clinton administration, from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 11.3 percent in 2000. However, it has increased every year under George W. Bush, who has diverted large sums of money to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is an ideal issue that could galvanize bipartisan support. But we must first get the leaders to follow their followers.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.