Poverty, politics and the debate: a Q&A with faculty expert Rick Axtell
Rick Axtell is one of several faculty experts who can speak to issues and subjects related to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11. To see other faculty experts, click here.
Q: How important have issues of poverty been during this election cycle?
Rick Axtell, Paul L. Cantrell Associate Professor of Religion: One disappointing aspect of this campaign is that no one is talking substantively about poverty. The issue has been largely absent from the national dialogue. In fact, the political conventions consistently emphasized helping the middle class, improving the lives of the middle class, tax cuts for the middle class. Someone should have put an empty chair on the convention stage to represent poor people. They were simply absent.
Here’s one example: Bill Clinton’s speech lamented the fact that pundits have focused on Paul Ryan’s proposed cuts in Medicare, our federal health care program for the elderly, while ignoring his proposed cuts in Medicaid. Since Medicaid is our primary federal health care program for the poor, I thought, “Finally, someone is going to talk about poverty.” Clinton went on to ask, “Why should you care about this?” And then he reminded us that Medicaid also finances nursing home care for millions of elderly middle class Americans and disability payments for middle class Americans. In other words: “Care about this because it’s a middle class program—not because it is the only source of health insurance for millions of America’s poorest people.” The speech was perfectly emblematic of the pervasive moral failure that has led to calculated silence on this pressing issue.
Q: What issues of poverty do you hope to see addressed at the VP debate and the future presidential debates?
Axtell: It would be a step forward just to put the issue on the table for discussion, especially in light of the recent Census Bureau figures that reveal a deepening national problem. 46.2 million Americans live below the poverty level—about $23,000 for a family of four in 2011. That’s 15 percent of the American population, a rate reached only three times since 1965.
Looking deeper into the poverty statistics, a category called “severe poverty” measures the number of Americans with incomes below one-half their poverty threshold. Twenty million Americans—6.6 percent of the population—are experiencing “severe poverty.” That’s 44 percent of those in poverty. In fact, income inequality increased to its highest level since the Census Bureau began measuring it. The top 20 percent of earners received 51.1 percent of the aggregate income earned in 2011. The bottom 20 percent received a 3.3 percent share. Over the past thirty years, tax policies and changing wage structures in the U.S. have redistributed wealth upward so that 40 percent of the nation’s wealth is possessed by one percent of the richest Americans.
Further, we are the only industrialized nation whose poorest age group is children. Only 8.7 percent of our elderly are poor—thanks in part to programs like Medicare and Social Security. But 16 million children under the age of 18 are poor—22 percent of America’s kids. Thus, almost one-third of the poor people in the U.S. are children. And while most poor people are white (41.5 percent of the poor), the percentages reflect another shameful family secret. Poverty affects 9.8 percent of whites, 25.3 percent of Hispanics and 27.6 percent of blacks.
Somehow, we are no longer troubled by these realities. I’d like to see the debates prompt our leaders to respond to American poverty in terms of both policy proposals and values.
Q: In your view, what are the key differences between the parties on how to address poverty?
Axtell: What makes our national discussion so polarized is that conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have different analyses of the causes of poverty. Generally, conservatism has emphasized personal, behavioral and moral causes. In the name of personal responsibility, conservatives focus on early pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births, breakdown of the family, alcohol and drug addiction, irresponsible work and spending habits, dropping out of school, gang participation and criminal behavior. The corresponding solution is charitable programs on the local level that lead to moral and spiritual renewal, individual behavioral change and private initiative.
Liberals have emphasized systemic and structural causes. In the name of social justice, they focus on the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy with low-wage work for the unskilled, lack of affordable housing, health care costs and the lack of insurance, and entrenched class and race inequalities. The corresponding solutions are public or governmental changes that transform tax policy, foster employment with living wages and income support, build affordable housing, guarantee health insurance and prohibit discrimination.
Both sides grasp a key element of the problem in many cases, but without the other perspective, each analysis is reductionist. Each needs the other because the real lives of poor people are a complex combination of systemic and personal factors that must be addressed if political thought intends to be effective in addressing poverty. We need leaders who will offer a fresh political ethic that reconnects personal and social transformation and highlights creative public/private partnerships.
A government program probably won’t change the life of an addict or restore a sense of self to an alienated gang member. But a recovering addict will end up on the streets if he can’t get a job that will pay him enough to afford an apartment. So we need a renewed systemic focus on wages, benefits and affordable housing. But we also need relational interventions like mentorship and case management that can address personal habits where these may be a factor. If liberals are reluctant to talk about personal transformation and conservatives won’t talk about structural realities that require government action, we’ll remain at an impasse that leaves both sides with tired talking points that are irrelevant, ineffective and even damaging.
Q: Your colleague in Religion, Lee Jefferson, recently commented on the fact that both of the candidates in this VP debate are Catholic. How do you think that affects their positions on poverty?
Axtell: Well, causal analysis is often grounded upon an underlying foundation of beliefs and values. I’d like to see a debate question that addresses those foundations. The long tradition of Catholic social teaching focuses on the individual worth, inherent dignity and personal responsibility of every human being, while also affirming that we are social beings, created for relationship. So our individuality is fulfilled in community—a covenant community where members are responsible for one another and for the common good. Hence, Catholicism has emphasized a “preferential option for the poor” that evaluates policy in light of its effects on society’s most vulnerable individuals.
Perhaps Catholicism can offer one way into the balance that is needed. The U.S. Catholic bishops offered a strong critique of the cuts in Paul Ryan’s budget as an abandonment of Catholic social teaching. They should be equally critical of Obama for the unacceptable growth in poverty and inequality during his presidency. However, their evaluation of Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, focused not on its effects on poor people, but on its provisions related to funding for contraception.
Congressman Ryan defends his budget proposal as an expression of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which balances liberty and equality by fostering decentralized responses to human need. But the Bishops have pointed out that Ryan misses the spirit of the principle. In his interpretation, liberty trumps equality, decentralization becomes unlimited individualism, and subsidiarity collapses into a free market ideology that abandons public investment in empowering solutions for those in need.
I’d like to see a debate question that asks the candidates to evaluate the 1996 Welfare Reform in light of the new poverty statistics and their deepest value commitments. Clinton’s reform established time limits and work requirements in order to restore incentives and foster personal responsibility. But it neglected key systemic supports that his advisor David Ellwood believed must accompany time limits if the reform was to work effectively to reduce poverty and not just reduce welfare rolls. Catholic social teaching understands this policy as a separation of interrelated moral imperatives that must be held in tension with one another.
Of course, our public political discourse is more likely to employ the language of human rights. So why not ask the candidates, “What things do you believe are due to every human being simply by virtue of the fact that they are human? Freedom of speech, worship and assembly? Rights to food, housing, health care and employment? Further, how should the community structure the securing of those rights? Wouldn’t that be a fascinating and important discussion?
Q: What kinds of events are scheduled this semester on campus to raise our own awareness of poverty?
Axtell: This month, we have a convocation on immigration that features a young woman from Mexico who lived in the United States but had to return to Mexico. She will speak of the plight of bicultural Mexican youth on both sides of the border who struggle to complete their education.
In November our Poverty and Homelessness Week includes volunteer service at local agencies and another convocation entitled “Faces of Homelessness” that will examine the causes of homelessness in our region. Two formerly homeless individuals from Louisville and Cincinnati will share their stories.
Hearing the stories of others may be one of the most important things we can do about the issues we’ve been discussing. Prior to the religious language of Catholic social teaching or the public discourse of human rights is the narrative of human experience, which is the most powerful and universal language. As Catholic moral theologian Monika Hellwig says, “The idea of human rights is surely first shaped by the sense of violation. It has its origin in an existential scream of pain or deprivation. When we hear the scream, we know what it means not because we can explain it but because we can feel it. It is by the capacity for empathy that we know what it means. But we have to hear the scream first.” Perhaps that would do more to change our political discourse on poverty than anything.