The United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, also abides the deepest poverty of any developed nation, but you would not know it by listening to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the major parties’ presidential nominees.
Clinton, speaking about her economic plans on Thursday near Detroit, underscored her credentials as an advocate for middle-class families whose fortunes have flagged. She said much less about helping the 47 million Americans who yearn to reach the middle class.
Her Republican rival spoke in Detroit on his economic proposals four days ago, and while their platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.
“We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor of sociology. “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”
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It is not as if Washington policymakers have completely forgotten the poor. President Barack Obama and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin have both advocated expanding the earned-income tax credit for childless men and tackling a criminal justice system that has saddled minor offenders with lives of economic struggle.
And Clinton’s policies, although rhetorically geared toward the middle class, would most likely have a broader effect. On Thursday, in Warren, Michigan, she again promised an economy that works for “everyone, not just those at the top.” She has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour from $7.25 an hour, which would directly benefit many lower-income workers. And her proposals to help the middle class would benefit some lower-income families, too. She has proposed expanding federal subsidies for health care, child care and education, and mandating improved benefits for workers.
“You want more?” Heather Boushey, the executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, asked of those who argue that Clinton should embrace an explicit anti-poverty agenda. “That’s great. That is such an audacious statement. They want everything, and I am with them. But it is also worth noting that Hillary Clinton is running on the most progressive platform any party has put together.”
Boushey is an adviser to the Clinton campaign but said she was not speaking for it. The campaign itself did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump said Monday that he would spur economic growth by reducing taxes and regulation, and by renegotiating trade agreements to bring manufacturing back to the United States. He also outlined a plan to help some families offset the expense of child care.
Trump said in July that he favored a $10-an-hour federal minimum wage, but he has made contradictory remarks in other public appearances, the proposal does not appear in campaign materials and he did not mention it in Detroit.
Both Clinton and Trump have said they are focused on creating more and better jobs.
“My primary mission as president will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States,” Clinton said in accepting the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia last month.
But Desmond, the Harvard sociologist, said that was not enough because the poor faced a wide range of other obstacles to economic stability. His own work has focused on a growing shortage of affordable rental housing. In his recent book, “Evicted,” he showed that evictions are a regular feature of life in lower-income neighborhoods, and that they are not just the result of poverty, but that instability causes poverty.
Increasing affordable housing was until recently a standard campaign pledge for presidential candidates of both parties. President Bill Clinton created a “National Home Ownership Strategy.” President George W. Bush announced early in his first term a target of creating 5.5 million new minority homeowners by 2010, alongside measures to encourage the construction of rental housing.
But Clinton made only one glancing reference to affordable housing Thursday, spending far more time on promoting entrepreneurship and small businesses, bolstering broadband access and reviving manufacturing. Her campaign website highlights 37 issues, but housing is not among them, although the campaign issued some proposals in February.
Trump, during a speech in Miami to the National Association of Homebuilders on Thursday, lamented the decline of homeownership since the housing and financial crisis of 2008. But he stopped short of outlining an actual housing policy.
“It was pretty shocking not to hear that word, housing, uttered on the main stage” at either party’s convention last month, Desmond said.
The silence is particularly striking because the problem is growing. There is not a single state where a full-time worker earning the minimum wage can rent a market-rate one-bedroom apartment for 30 percent or less of their income, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And more than 11 million households spend more than half of their income on rent.
Kathryn Edin, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, said it was particularly important to focus on the plight of families without regular income. Federal benefits for workers, notably the earned-income tax credit, have steadily expanded in recent decades, improving the lives of those who have jobs.
Ryan presented an anti-poverty plan in June that suggested another expansion of the tax credit, an idea that is also popular among many Democrats.
But Edin said the 1996 deal between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans to curtail cash benefits for needy families had left those without jobs behind.
“When you can’t pay the utility bill, you can’t pay the rent and you can’t buy socks and underwear for your kids, how much does the fact that you have a Medicaid card really do for you?” asked Edin, who wrote about the plight of such families in her 2015 book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.” She said that she had hoped the 20th anniversary of the “end of welfare” might spark renewed discussions about what should be done instead, but that she had been disappointed.
Edin and other advocates also express frustration that both candidates tend to focus on manufacturing, a sector that employs less than 10 percent of the workforce.
Clinton chose to speak Thursday at Futuramic Tool and Engineering, a company in Warren, just north of Detroit, which makes parts for cars and airplanes including the F-35 fighter jet. Trump has repeatedly promised to create new jobs for miners and steelworkers.
The candidates have spent less time talking about the service jobs performed by the vast majority of low-wage workers. There were 64,000 steelworkers last year – and 820,000 home health aides.
“Much of what I hear is an argument over who is going to help the working class that’s been hurt by globalization, more than the retail or restaurant worker who is stuck at a low wage,” said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research group. “We have to be mindful of where those displaced manufacturing workers have ended up, which is in the low-end service sector.”
Trump’s policies, while ostensibly aimed at the middle class, would in fact benefit the rich.
His call this week to eliminate the estate tax would affect only couples fortunate enough to be able to leave their heirs nearly $11 million at death. Estates worth less than that are exempt from taxation.
Even his call for a greatly expanded tax deduction for child care costs would only benefit households that itemize their taxes, most of them with incomes over $75,000.
But Bernstein did add that Clinton’s proposals could benefit those workers, even if that was not her focus on the campaign trail.
“It’s not at all unusual for people running for president not to talk about poverty because the poor are not necessarily the swing voters you’re trying to pick off,” he said. “But I actually think a lot of her proposals would help – she just doesn’t always connect the dots to poverty and low-income workers.”