President Obama is known for choosing his words carefully, and one of the words he rarely chooses to utter in public is “poverty.”
With more than 46 million Americans living in poverty, and people relying on food stamps at record levels, the president also talks infrequently about “the poor” in his speeches and public comments. Compared with his predecessors, Mr. Obama is far more likely to speak about the “middle class” when promoting his agenda.
A study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University looked at presidents dating back to John F. Kennedy and found that Mr. Obama ranks dead last in speaking about the poor. The research compared the public statements and official communications on social class of the past 10 presidents.
Through May, Mr. Obama had discussed “the poor” 26 percent of the time during his presidency. The next-lowest was Republican George H.W. Bush, at 50 percent. The president who talked most often about the poor was Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, who devoted 84 percent of his official communications on social class to people living in poverty.
Mr. Obama leads all presidents, and has focused his public pronouncements instead on the middle class — 51 percent of the time. Democrat Bill Clinton came in second, at 23 percent. The president who talked least about the middle class was Johnson — 1 percent of the time. He was followed closely by Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Richard M. Nixon, at 3 percent each.
The White House wouldn’t address Mr. Obama’s tendencies when talking about social class. But Rachel Black, a specialist on policies for low-income families at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, said Mr. Obama is downplaying the poor in words rather than deeds.
“The way we’ve seen him engage on the issue of poverty really is through the perspective of broad economic well-being, rather than looking specifically at poverty,” she said. “Poverty is a fairly narrow characterization that can be divisive politically. President Obama has tried to walk a fairly narrow line between addressing the issues concerning poverty and discussing them in such a way that doesn’t alienate the kind of public support that’s necessary to move policies along.”
She said the president’s programs such as the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act in 2009, and tax cuts late last year for families earning less than $450,000, could be seen as “solutions that bring the bottom up.”
“There may not be as many specific pronouncements on poverty as an issue, but I think that his actions at addressing the well-being of people at the bottom of the economic ladder come from there,” Ms. Black said.
The president’s views on poverty also could be seen in the White House’s threatened veto last month of the House farm bill, which would have cut about $20 billion from a projected $701 billion in spending on the food stamp program over the next 10 years. The White House said the legislation would have made “unacceptable deep cuts which could increase hunger among millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including families with children and senior citizens.”
House Republicans are expected to make another attempt this month to pass the farm bill.
The Census Bureau defines poverty for a family of four as earning $23,550 or less.
The White House does have a poverty section on its website. It details more than $32 billion in spending from the Recovery Act that was designed to alleviate poverty, including larger child tax credits and increases in funding for food stamps. It describes Mr. Obama as “a lifelong advocate for the poor” and notes his work in Chicago as a community organizer and his experience of being raised by a single mother.
But when Mr. Obama said last month that “we have too many kids in poverty in this country,” he made headlines because of his infrequent mentions about poverty.
In his State of the Union address this year, Mr. Obama called for an increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour, saying “no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.” There is little evidence, however, that the wage increase would lift families above the poverty line.
The Brookings Institution, a left-leaning nonprofit research group, found that a $9-per-hour minimum wage would raise the earnings of low-income households by only 7 percent, from an average of $11,047 to $11,828 a year. Ms. Black said expansion of the earned income tax credit is a more effective solution targeted at low-income families and “creates a strong incentive to work and increase earnings.”
While Mr. Obama is relatively reluctant to talk about poverty, some polling suggests that the public doesn’t want to hear about it, either.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in June found that 24 percent of respondents — the largest share — said the biggest reason for poverty is “too much government welfare that prevents initiative.”
The survey offered a list of eight factors and asked respondents to choose the one they thought was most responsible for continuing poverty. The second most popular answer was “lack of job opportunities,” at 18 percent. “Lack of good educational opportunities” and “breakdown of families” were tied for third at 13 percent each. They were followed in descending order by “lack of work ethic,” “lack of government funding,” “drugs” and “racial discrimination.”