"We haven't even mentioned poverty," John Edwards noted towards the end of a recent Democratic presidential candidate debate. The CNN host, Wolf Blitzer, grilled candidates about Iraq, about immigration, about health care, about energy, about gay rights and women's rights – but there was virtually no mention of the economy, of rising poverty, of stagnant wages, of the worst corporate crime wave since the Robber Barons.
Iraq, health care and energy issues rank at the top of American concerns. But so does this economy, which befuddles people. The stock market sets new records; corporate profits are up; CEO salaries are up; worker productivity is up. Yet most Americans find themselves working harder and longer – longer hours than workers in any other industrial nation – just to stay afloat. Poverty is rising in the midst of prosperity. And around their kitchen tables, pressures are rising.
Corporations are shredding the promises they once made to workers – stable jobs, living wages, health care and pensions. The jobs that are being shipped abroad pay more and have better benefits than those that are being created. This economy works well – but only if you are at the top, not for the vast majority.
Worse, those at the top have sundered their connection to those who work for them. We've witnessed the worst crime wave in the corporate boardrooms in history. Enron and WorldCom are infamous, but the leaders of literally hundreds of Fortune 500 companies have admitted to cooking their books and backdating their pensions. Increasingly, CEOs plan not to build companies over the long-term, but to cash out in the short term.
At the same time, our trade policies have been made by and for the multinationals, not the nation. The result is the worst trade deficits in history – and what historian Chalmers Johnson calls a Blanche DuBois economy, dependent on the kindness of strangers – particularly Chinese and Japanese central bankers. Inevitably, foreigners flush with dollars are beginning to buy up America, and our jobs become even less secure.
We desperately need a broad debate about getting this economy back on the right track. Republican candidates have been asked if they believe in evolution. Democrats if they support English only as the official language. Candidates in both parties rail against deficits, which in fact are among the lowest in the industrial world. Our trade deficits are a problem, not our budget deficits. Our staggering investment deficit – in schools, in modern transport, in clean energy, in basic research and development – limits our growth, not our budget deficits. We don't suffer from soaring inflation and rising interest rates. We suffer from stagnant wages and growing insecurity.
And poverty cannot simply be cordoned off as the signature of the John Edwards' campaign. His moral courage should invite others to engage, not to retreat. As a society, we all pledged that we would never forget the poverty and desperation revealed in the wake of Katrina. But the poorest of Katrina's survivors have been dispersed across the country, most still unable to return. Public housing has been leveled with nothing to replace it. Homes have not been rebuilt.
New Orleans reflects the nation. Our cities grow unequal – with the wealthy doing well, the middle class displaced, and the poor struggling even more. Immigrants with no legal status supply a low-cost, easily oppressed pool of workers, driving down wages on the low end.
Why is poverty not on the agenda of the debates? Is it because our national anchors are so well paid they think the economy is humming? Is it because we wrongly conflate race and poverty, and forget that most poor people are not Black, they are White, female and young?
The Bush administration has an answer for the economic woes that plague middle income and poor people. The administration is slashing the budget of the bureau that collects the statistics on poverty and well-being. If more children are raised in poverty, at least we won't know too much about it.
On Tuesday, Republicans gather for their New Hampshire debate. They'll be asked about the war, about choice, about immigration -- as they should. But this time, don't leave out poor children and what we should do about rising poverty. Ask about stagnant wages, and what we should do about an economy in which so few capture so much of the rewards of rising productivity. Ask what they would do to insure that workers get their fair share of the profits they help generate. We may learn what the candidates' values really are.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.