My first political memory was of wealthy Republicans laughing at Walter Mondale for talking too much about "the poor." They were watching the 1984 presidential debate. I was 5 years old. My father worked for Reagan and we were at a political soiree at a mansion in Northern Virginia.
Although I grew up Republican, I later became a Democrat in part because I decided that society should help the poor, not mock them or ignore them.
One thing I've noticed, however, is that there has been less and less discussion of the poor in our nation's political discourse as the years have rolled by. Instead, politicians are always talking about "helping the middle class."
There's nothing wrong with helping the middle class, but there are some people in America who need much more help. And let's call it like it is: those people are poor. Downright poor.
These are the invisible Americans. Their concerns and needs never discussed by politicians. The word "poor" itself has been mostly banished from our political vocabulary -- so outmoded that Mondale might have been the last mainstream politician to use it!
The poor? Oh, you mean those starving people in Africa, right? No. The people all around us, here in our own country, who live lives of struggle and shame, and are totally ignored by our nation's leaders. They stock shelves at Walmart, flip burgers at McDonalds, clean toilets in people's homes, and do underpaid temp work and unpaid internships in corporate offices. Many of them have college degrees and cannot find a job in their field. Many of them, despite having the desire and ability to work, cannot find a job at all.
If the poor are all around us, among us, then why are they so invisible? Part of the reason is that they have been taught to think of themselves as "middle class." Nobody wants to admit to themselves and others that they're actually "poor."
This is an American phenomenon which is likely rooted in our nation's Calvinist religious heritage and the modern proliferation of the self-help movement and "name it and claim it" charismatic Christianity. Many Americans worry that to be poor means to be rejected by God. And they have been persuaded that admitting the reality of one's negative circumstances will attract more bad things to oneself via the "law of attraction."
So, instead of poor people in America developing a consciousness of their true economic situation and fighting to change it by reforming the economic system that has put them at a disadvantage, they retreat into shame and false hopes that they can pray their way out of a poverty they do not acknowledge.
I don't claim to have all the answers for how to lift America's poor out of poverty. But a good start would be simply to talk about the fact that poverty exists in America and is growing -- that our nation is filled with poor people, and more people are falling out of the middle class and into poverty each day, and most of these people are just like anyone else: they try hard in life, go to work or fill out job applications as vigorously as non-poor Americans. Most importantly, we as a society need to start admitting that the poor are not "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" nor are they part of an all-encompassing top-to-bottom "middle class," but they are just poor, and most of them are likely to stay that way despite their best personal efforts unless economic policies are changed.
Jesus said "The poor are always with you." Yes, yes they are. Even in 21st century America. But they don't have to be. That's up to us. Solving the problem of poverty begins with admitting it exists. Bringing back the word "poor" into America's national debate could help to focus our attention on its reality.