What poor?

Hrm. That Robert Rector thing from the Heritage Foundation about how poor people have it good seems to be catching on everywhere. See this NRO article about how John Edwards' discussion of struggling low-income families is a cheap ploy, exploiting sympathy for the mythical poor.

The mythical poor meme is quite convenient for conservatives trying to divert attention from the real stakes this election year: the stagnating middle class. Since welfare reform, the poor have become almost an invisible issue in national politics. The watershed change in how Democrats approach the problem of poverty, engineered by Bill Clinton, swept away the 30 year stretch of Democrats monopoly on engaging poverty, begun in earnest in the Great Society programs. Republicans have been a bit adrift on this point since then, having lost a long-favored whipping boy in partisan debate: "Oh you know Democrats, they're always crying about those lazy-ass poor people who scam the government and then go home to make more babies and roll around on their food stamp hoards."

Part of the deal Clinton made dictates that Democrats now can't really focus on poverty without losing that bulwark against Republican taunts. So this time, Democrats are trying to shape a new message about the middle class, and how it is being left behind as America's wealthy are catapulted into exponentially higher income brackets each year. John Edwards is probably the most eloquent candidate on this point, but the general idea is near ubiquitous. The problem for the middle class is that wages are stagnant, jobs are meager, while the big-ticket items that promote improved life experience and security, like education, health care, confidence in your retirement, are all getting more expensive and out of reach. Republicans are having a hard time with this because, for all the mileage Bush gets with middle Americans for being tough and kick-ass, no one can honestly argue that he's untouchable on middle-class security issues.

So some conservatives have decided to go for a flank they remember fondly, the poverty debate. "Hey, poor people have all these big screen TVs, why are you exaggerating their problems?" Edwards: "Um, I take issue with that, but I was talking about the middle class." "La la la la la. Oh poor people have it so bad, you guys haven't changed at all." See?

This attack resonates with people who are still concerned about poverty, and offends. Because while poor people in America today obviously have a better standard of living than they did 100 years ago, or than poor people do in say, Somalia, (which I think might be setting the bar a smidge low for the world's preeminent post-industrial democracy, but whatever), there are objective standards of decency in medical care, in educational attainment, in nutrition, etc., that many people are still far short of. Maybe Rector should think about why poor people have the money to buy Playstations...perhaps because there's no chance they can afford health insurance or college for their children? Just a thought.

As I was saying, although this unexpected raising of the mythical poor is noticeable to the people still concerned about poverty, I wonder if it is such an effective argument for people who took Clinton's bait and haven't thought about it lately. If Bush came out all Pollyanna on middle class troubles, "you people have it great, look at your consumer electronics" and John Edwards says, "Hey, I know you're worried about your health insurance, that's messed up," who are voters going to listen to?


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