The media will impose all sorts of phony litmus tests on the 2000 presidential candidates -- who makes a meaningless rhetorical gaffe in the debate, who has a staffer whose tax returns aren't perfect, who slept with whom and who sniffed what. But there is only one test that really matters: Which candidate will make the shameful, spiraling gulf between the haves and the have-nots the top item on the nation's agenda?
What, you may ask, is a conservative doing ringing alarm bells about growing income inequality and America becoming "two nations"? Let me first of all remind you that it was a Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, who coined the term. In 1845, the future prime minister of England warned of the danger of his country disintegrating into "two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy ... as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets."
Teddy Roosevelt carried on in Disraeli's tradition, speaking about the perils of "predatory wealth" and the "abuses of the criminal rich," and challenging his fellow Republicans to support such progressive policies as child-labor laws and government inspection of food. Since the presidency of the other Roosevelt, poverty and inequality have become potent Democratic issues.
But New Democrats seem to have gotten tired of them. The Democratic National Committee went so far as to revise its party platform in 1996 to strike out the promise that the party "will continue to help those who cannot help themselves." Was this really that offensive a statement? Would this really have cost Democrats votes?
It might be time for them to ask themselves why they are in public life if they agree with the president that "most things are going right for our country." This is a chilling statement for anyone who's keeping an eye on the other America: nearly 700,000 layoffs in 1998, 56 percent higher than the year before; the biggest surge in unemployment claims in six years; and a study of four Northwest states that revealed more than half of the available jobs do not pay a living wage.
At the same time, corporate America has never been more robust. In fact, since 1990 -- the supposed end of the Greed Decade -- the pay of CEOs has gone up more than 440 percent. While the conventional wisdom holds that America is thriving, it's hard to escape the notion that the United States has been torn in two -- divided between a moneyed elite that has greatly benefited from globalization and an increasing number of citizens who have been left choking on the dust of the bulls as they rush past.
In 1964, 36 million Americans lived in poverty. Thirty-five years and a War on Poverty later, 35.6 million Americans live in poverty.
The Casey Foundation's "Kids Count" report, released this spring, identified 9.2 million children "growing up with a collection of disadvantages that are cause for exceptional alarm" and focused on "the persistent exclusion of far too many of our children and families from the full promise of American life." "Kids Count" directly contradicts the rosy data being spun from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue by reporting the significant increase in the number of children -- 5.6 million -- in families of the working poor. Despite the economic boom and an unemployment rate at a 25-year low, the U.S. child poverty rate remains at 21 percent -- the highest in the developed world.
This spring, the United Way of Los Angeles released its "Tale of Two Cities" report, spotlighting the growing disparities in the richest city in the nation and concluding that "economic conditions for children have not been so precarious since the Great Depression." One out of three children in Los Angeles lives below the poverty level, the number of abused children placed in foster care has risen 86 percent in the past decade and even with the recent drop in violent crime, homicide is still the largest single cause of death for children under 18.
According to officials of 30 major cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, "The strong economy has had very little positive impact on hunger and homelessness." Ninety-three percent of those responding expected requests for emergency shelter to increase further next year. Second Harvest, the biggest national network of food banks, says its clientele is growing by 10 percent a year, a rate not yet rivaling Starbucks, but demonstrating the growing divide. A flurry of reports over the last few weeks documents the split:
- According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, among families headed by single women, the poorest fifth lost an average of $577 a year in income and benefits between 1995 and 1997.
- Another center report projected that the after-tax income gap between rich and poor will reach record levels in 1999, with the poorest fifth of Americans left with 9 percent less than they had in 1977 and the richest fifth with 43 percent more.
- A study by the Children's Defense Fund shows that in one year, from 1996 to 1997, the number of children living in extreme poverty -- defined as less than half of the poverty level -- rose by 26 percent among single-mother families.
- According to the Urban Institute, the median annual income of welfare recipients, including those with children, who left the rolls for jobs between 1995 and 1997 was $13,788. So they escaped welfare but not poverty.
I was asked during a recent speech at the Congressional Faith and Politics Institute what we could do to raise the profile of poverty in this country. "Put a Republican back in the White House," I replied -- not because he would do more for the poor, but because their champions on the left would reunite with their consciences and instantly regain their voices.
During the '80s, Democrats were quick to deride Ronald Reagan's claims of "Morning in America," with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously, and rightly, chiding the Great Communicator's vision of "a shining city on a hill" by saying: "There is despair, Mr. President, in faces you never see, in the places you never visit in your shining city." But Cuomo, and many of the most vocal Democrats protesting in the '80s, suddenly came down with laryngitis in the '90s, their cries of outrage replaced by cocktail chatter about the soaring NASDAQ.
It was the original "compassionate conservative," Teddy Roosevelt, who called the presidency a "bully pulpit." Unfortunately, the president has failed to use that pulpit to rally Americans to care about the poor. Talk about poverty has been replaced by endless nattering about "this era of unprecedented prosperity," as the president repeatedly calls it. "Finally the rising tide of our economy is lifting all boats," Clinton said in a radio address this year.
Prosperity is undeniably the theme of campaign 2000. The candidates are dishing it out like burgers and watermelon at a straw-poll picnic. In fact, listening to them talk, it's as if they're all auditioning not for leader of the free world, but for Regis Philbin's gig on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
In announcing his candidacy last week (candidates are now allotted, apparently by federal law, roughly half a dozen "announcements," which the media obligingly cover), Bill Bradley repeatedly used the P-word. First he said he was running "to guard the economic fundamentals of our prosperity," presumably the way he used to cover players in the NBA. He then called for "a deeper prosperity ... a prosperity that makes us feel rich inside as well as out."
What that means is anybody's guess, but even as platitude it's notable. Do you remember the days when campaign rhetoric at least tended to be about something noble, even inspirational? But "making us feel rich inside and out"? That's more Tony Robbins than Robert Kennedy.
Vice President Al Gore wants us to know that he, too, can pander to our noble love of money. "I want to keep our prosperity going," Gore said in New Hampshire, "and I know how to do it." He even vowed to make America the "world capital of prosperity" -- which begs the question: Where is the capital now? Russia? North Korea?
Not wanting to seem soft on prosperity, George W. Bush has gone on a prosperity jag himself, determined not to cede one inch of the humming economy to his Democratic rivals. "Some in this current administration think they've invented prosperity," he said. "But they didn't invent prosperity any more than they invented the Internet." In his announcement speech (his third, I believe), Bush used "prosperous" or "prosperity" 15 times. To hear him tell it, prosperity is the panacea.
"We must be prosperous to keep the peace," he said, suggesting that prosperity can even protect us from "terror and missiles and madmen." That's some bull market! Maybe by the time the year is out, we'll hear that the market can heal the sick and infirm. Or turn water into stock options.
Of course, Steve Forbes is the poster child for prosperity. It's his birthright -- and lately he has been railing against Alan Greenspan and "the high priests of finance at the Fed." The current prosperity is apparently just not prosperous enough.
Like one of those single-issue cable networks, the White House has given us the 24-hour Boom Channel -- All Prosperity, All The Time (with, of course, lots and lots of commercials).
The problem with this prosperity parade is the assumption that keeping the good times roaring will lead to everyone enjoying them. The language of the marketplace has eclipsed all other forms of rhetoric. Don't worry, they're saying, we're not going to ask you to even think of community and civic responsibility or anything that is not in your direct, economic self-interest -- and, somehow, a nation that we can be proud of will materialize.
Even the president's Poor-a-pa-Looza summer poverty tour was conducted not as an appeal to the nation's conscience but as a profit-making opportunity. "This is not about charity," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, "it's about investment. There's money to be made."
It's instructive to remember that leadership hasn't always been reduced to economics and didn't always answer only to the laws of supply and demand. Thirty-two years ago, when Robert Kennedy launched his poverty tour, he shocked the nation's conscience with television pictures of hungry children in his arms. He had faith that if the American people knew what was going on, they would respond with something other than fear of inflation.
"When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, something died in America," said civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "Something died in all of us." And Clinton buried whatever died with his flaccid rhetoric, a pale mockery of Kennedy's stirring words. It's like watching a Vegas lounge show where ersatz legends offer up feeble renditions of your all-time favorites. They've got the look, they've got the moves - what's missing is the soul.
Among Republicans, Bush is the candidate who speaks most frequently about poverty. He talks of "prosperity with a purpose" and promises "to make sure no one is left out and no one is left behind." Bush, of course, has campaigned as a "compassionate conservative," a description that has been attacked as "redundant" and "defensive" by his Republican competitors, jealous that he has laid claim to the moral center of the 2000 race. "I have ordered my staff to never -- ever -- utter the words 'compassionate conservative'!" thundered Dan Quayle, obviously aware that no one, least of all himself, has any control over what the former vice president might say at any given moment.
But "cautious conservative" might be a more apt description for Bush, who is failing to seize the moment while an important legislative battle is being lost in Washington. In 1996, Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., introduced the American Community Renewal Act, a bill that would have enabled communities to fight their own war on poverty. Through tax incentives, public housing reforms and regulatory relief, it aimed to revitalize 100 neighborhoods torn by drugs, broken families and failed public schools. And it was just the start.
The charitable tax credit was another piece of legislation that went nowhere. Carried by Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., it would have allowed families to give up to $1,000 of what they owe in taxes to a poverty-fighting charity of their choice. In one fell swoop it would have achieved three crucial objectives: First, it would have provided billions of dollars for effective grass-roots groups that at the moment are operating hand-to-mouth. Second, by focusing on poverty fighting, it would have established a hierarchy of charitable priorities. And third, it would have strengthened the frail bonds of community. In the course of deciding which poverty-fighting group to support, citizens would have had the opportunity to become more personally involved in the lives of those in need.
On the surface, it seems a long way from a thousand-dollar tax credit to rebuilding our moral muscles. But we become generous by the practice of generosity and compassionate by the practice of compassion -- not by the practice of lobbying the government to be compassionate.
Just three years later, this hearty stew of solutions has been watered down to gruel. The American Community Renewal Act of 1999 would target only 20 urban and rural "renewal communities" for tax and regulatory relief. And another provision would allow individuals to roll over their IRA assets into charities without incurring a tax penalty. To make matters worse, both are locked into the Taxpayer Refund and Relief Act of 1999, which seems destined for a presidential veto.
Bush has himself proposed charitable tax credits for private and religious institutions to fight poverty, as well as grants to help mentor the children of prisoners and even the appointment of a "charity czar" to oversee those efforts. But the moment is being lost. If he does not challenge his fellow Republicans on the Hill to send President Clinton the Renewal Act legislation, unattached and uncompromised, his campaign promises will be just more talk.
Maybe the most insidious byproduct of politicians' indifference to the plight of the poor has been a drop-off in attention from the media. During the Reagan years, the plight of the homeless was never too far away from the headlines, with the president roundly criticized for his "trickle-down" economy. But during the Clinton years, as those same trends have continued and solidified, the media has been largely silent, giving the president a free pass for his "don't look down" economy.
According to a Village Voice report, there's been a nationwide drop-off in column inches, frequency and prominence in the press coverage of poverty: "In the fall of 1988, The New York Times devoted 50 stories to the homeless, including five front page pieces. This year  the Times has run only 10 pieces in the same period; none have begun on A-1." Homelessness is just not an A-1 story in our present national conversation. With a warm-and-fuzzy president who feels our pain and parrots back to us what pollsters tell him we want to hear, it appeared safe to avert our eyes -- and the homeless were kicked off the front page and out of our political discourse.
Which brings us to the only major policy on poverty of the Clinton years: welfare reform. A nearly 40 percent drop in welfare caseloads since the law was passed in 1996 has conveyed the false impression that although the poor will always be with us, there's no longer enough of them to deserve our attention. But what will become of the 4.9 million welfare recipients who left the rolls as they face declining prospects for work? "Welfare reform has done better at moving families off the rolls than it has at moving families out of poverty," said Lawrence Aber, director of Columbia University's Center for Children in Poverty. In other words, "welfare reform" has been great for swelling the ranks of the working poor.
Meanwhile, the real work of helping the poor goes on nearly unnoticed. Deborah Constance, who founded A Place Called Home in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, was a successful real estate agent who went on to create a safe haven for children and teenagers in the middle of the violence and drugs that surround them. In a precinct that reported 134 robberies, 11 homicides, 134 felony assaults and 10 attempted murders in one month, A Place Called Home is equipped to handle as many as 1,000 children -- with no government funding.
"The problem cannot be solved from afar with a media campaign, or other safe solutions operating from a distance," says Jeffrey Canada, who runs 43 children's programs from Harlem to Hell's Kitchen. "The only way we're going to make a difference is by placing well-trained and caring adults in the middle of what can only be called a free-fire zone in our poorest communities."
But instead of using the bully pulpit to lead us to take up the fight like Constance and Canada have done, Clinton has been lulling us to sleep, waxing lyrical about his successes: "Now you see the signs of the transformation everywhere," he said recently. "Mothers collecting their mail with a little more pride because they know they'll see a bank statement, not a welfare check; children going to school with their heads held a little higher."
The Rev. Jim Wallis, who heads the Call to Renewal, a coalition to combat poverty, paints a very different picture than the one painted by the president and the presidential candidates. "The new icon of poverty," he told me, "is the working mother with children. I think of the woman a colleague of mine saw at a Burger King recently. She was busing tables, but kept going back to a table in the corner where two kids were sitting. She did this several times before it became apparent that she was their mother and was supervising their homework. That woman at the Burger King is supposed to be our success story."
The real battle line of the first presidential election of the new millennium will be drawn between those who answer to their corporate donors and those who answer to the woman at the Burger King.