Poor is a four-letter word

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, Poor means “1 a: lacking material possessions b: of, relating to, or characterized by poverty; 2 a: less than adequate : meager : small in worth; 3: exciting pity ; 4 a: inferior in quality or value.

We are, as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin proudly proclaimed in last night’s debate, a nation fueled by exceptionalism. Words like “lacking,” “meager” and “inferior” don’t quite fit that self image.

So when moderator Gwen Ifill dared broach the subject of the poor, the response of both Palin and her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, should have come as no surprise. Ifill mentioned the poor in the context of the Republican proposal to tax employer health benefits, which could add five million Americans to the 47 million who are currently without health insurance. “I want to know,” she said, “why that isn’t taking things out on the poor.”

This was Palin’s moment to pull a rabbit out of a hat and tell us how the poor might actually benefit. But even more so, it was Biden’s chance to say that yes, the poor will bear the brunt of the Republican’s ridiculous scheme. Yet both candidates avoided the word “poor” like a share of WaMu stock, clinging to the “middle class” mantra that has emerged with startling force as a catch-all for the American people in the past several months of presidential campaigning.

Since John Edwards flamed out, there’s been little talk in the campaign about the poor (Edwards soldiers on with his Half in Ten initiative). A New York Times piece on Barack Obama a few months back deftly illustrates the gaping chasm between America as it is and America as we all pretend it to be. After encountering a couple struggling to hang on to their double-wide trailer, Obama zips off to a fundraiser where he dines on crab salad with Rockefellers under the gaze of a Picasso. As writer Michael Powell observes in the piece, “a presidential campaign is as ungainly a marriage of the achingly real and the unrelentingly material as one can find in American life.”

But the word “poor” does not appear once in that piece. "Struggling?" Fine. "Ordinary?" A-okay. "Redneck?" Just dandy. "Poor"? Not on your life. As Americans, even if we are poor we do not think of ourselves as poor and do not, under any circumstances, want to be called poor. Poor is an epithet. Poor is a scourge. In America, if you are poor, you are either lazy or have done something very, very wrong. Yet more than one in ten Americans is poor, and 13.5 million children in this country live in poverty. A 2007 study by Clatchy Newspapers put the percentage of Americans in severe poverty at a 32-year high.

In LA County alone, 40 percent of residents don’t earn enough money to meet their basic needs, and nearly a third of full-time workers earn less than $25,000 a year. More than 20 percent of our children live in extreme poverty.

One national poll found that Americans want more media coverage in this campaign of how the candidates would combat poverty. But at the same time, a Pew poll earlier this year reported that four in ten Americans with incomes below $20,000 identified themselves as middle class. (Compare that with John McCain’s $3 million definition).

“Poverty” is an abstract, faraway thing, like “the environment.” We have come to define poor not as what we are but as what we are not. If we can find someone out there who is worse off than we are, we are not poor. The homeless guy on the corner, he’s poor. And what about all those wretches in Dharavi, who themselves are sitting pretty compared with the really poor people in Neza-Chalco-Itza. Will our economic crisis change that? Mark Rank, an expert on poverty in America, thinks so.

In a commentary in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Rank reports that that “75 percent of the U.S. population will spend some amount of time in poverty or near poverty between the ages of 20 and 75,” and that “two thirds of Americans will rely on a social-support program such as food stamps for economic help at some point during their working years.” Rank continues: “Contrary to popular opinion, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by the majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not if we will experience poverty, but when.”

The Daily Show’s running "Cluster F#@k to the Poor House" bit suggests that in the midst of our current economic cataclysm we -- at least "we" in the popular culture sense -- may finally be slouching that way.

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