Poverty Plagues Obama’s America, Press Based in Booming Cities Shrugs

A small, thriving minority now dominates the national conversation, even as more and more Americans struggle to get by, writes Stuart Stevens.

Scott Olson/Getty

For a moment, let's forget about who is president and just look across the country.

Today, 21 and a half million Americans are unemployed or underemployed—about twice as many as six years ago, according to NPR. Work-force participation, a fancy term for the number of Americans either working or looking for work, has dropped to “the lowest level since the malaise of the late 1970’s,” an era when far fewer women were working, according to MSNBC.

Yes, the unemployment rate dropped last month—but only because so many people simply gave up looking for work. The dirty little secret is that after only four weeks of not looking for a job, an unemployed worker stops being counted. So far as the jobless numbers are concerned, that person ceases to exist. But, of course, they do exist and continue to be counted in other, troubling statistics:

More than 16 million Americans have been added to the food stamps rolls since Barack Obama was first elected—a 46 percent increase and greater than the population of Ohio. More than 50 million Americans now live in poverty. That’s one in six Americans, and one in five American children.

The last president who saw poverty at this level was LBJ, and it moved him to launch the war on poverty.

An economy inflicting this much pain is a national crisis that should dominate discussion as we marshal our collective attention. Instead, we’re talking about guns and gay marriage. In a country where hunger should be a national disgrace, we spend more time talking about a skinny billionaire’s efforts to stop the fat from getting fatter.

John Edwards is a lying lizard, but he was on to something when he talked about two Americas. The larger America, by far, is made up of men and women living paycheck to paycheck or without one, struggling like never before. For too many, the grinding economy has gone on for so long it is becoming the only America they remember.

The other, much smaller America is thriving. The stock market is hitting all-time highs, Silicon Valley keeps coining new twenty-something billionaires, and seven out of the ten wealthiest counties in America are now in the Washington, D.C. area.

Our national conversation now is dominated by the voices of the small, thriving minority. Go back and scan the coverage of the president's inaugural address this January, which barely mentioned jobs. Reporters from the nation’s biggest outlets—who work and live in prosperous New York and D.C.—scarcely acknowledged the omission. Perhaps the economy has been bad enough for long enough that its expiration date for news has expired, one more sign this terrible reality is the New Normal.

Where is our Studs Terkel? Our James Agee? Our John Steinbeck? Who is travelling outside of the city to spend the time reporting on and reminding us of the quiet pain that has become the daily fare of so many Americans?

Bill Clinton famously told the country last year that no president could be doing more for the economy than this president. Putting aside the delicious irony of Bill Clinton making the case, yet again, not to hold the chief executive accountable, there’s clearly more that a president truly focused on the economy could do.

A meat-and-potatoes Democrat like Ed Rendell would make jobs and the economy the true top priority of his administration. He would make it a national emergency and do the basic, unglamorous work that successful governors do as they try and help people get jobs by removing barriers to creating jobs. Look at these pockets of unemployment. What will it take to get new plants open in X or Y communities? A Jobs President would be meeting with governors and demanding a wish list of actions from the federal government and getting those things done. Historic? Probably not. Life changing for millions? Absolutely.

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But the often-boring work of jobs and the economy have never been what motivates Obama. He is a Cause Politician, governing in poetry as Mario Cuomo might put it. That's not meant as a blistering indictment—heaven knows many of the top conservative politicians are the same way. But it's a fact. This president wakes up in the morning eager to focus on jobs the same way George W. Bush woke up eager to focus on health care.

Maybe this will all work out, though every day of this so-called recovery is crushing Americans. But just keep this in mind. If the rolls keep going up at this rate they have since Obama took office, 32 million more Americans will receive food stamps by the time he leaves it. That would be roughly half as many people as voted for him last year.

But that can’t happen. Can it?