CINCINNATI - There's an odd imbalance that few have noticed in this presidential campaign. In the midst of a continuing economic downturn, one candidate talks regularly about poverty, and the other doesn't. The one who does is the Republican, Mitt Romney.
He's done it for a long time. Go back to Romney's March 30 speech in Appleton, Wis., in which he introduced the charge that President Obama is creating a "government-centered society." "Over 46 million Americans are now living in poverty, more than ever before in our nation's history," Romney said. "In households with single moms, over 39 percent are living in poverty."
In speech after speech since then, Romney has included the nation's poverty rate in his case against Obama. "Today, more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before," he said in his address to the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30. "Look around you. These are not strangers. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans." Romney also brought up poverty at both presidential debates that covered domestic policy.
In contrast, President Obama rarely utters the word, and usually not in a campaign context. For example, he mentioned poverty at the dedication of the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif., on Oct. 8, but mostly to discuss the conditions Chavez addressed in the 1960s and '70s. Obama spoke the word again in his Sept. 25 address to the United Nations -- also not a campaign speech -- but only in the context of discussing religious tolerance around the world.
In his speech to the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., Obama said "poverty" twice, once when discussing a hypothetical "little girl who's offered an escape from poverty by a great teacher or a grant for college," and later when declaring, "We know that churches and charities can often make more of a difference than a poverty program alone." Neither reference suggested there is a particularly acute poverty problem right now.
In short, even though the fight against poverty has long been associated with Democrats, and even though he is in a tight re-election race, and even though poverty is a particularly compelling problem at the moment, Barack Obama ignores the issue when it comes time to campaign. A sky-high poverty rate doesn't fit his theme that things are getting better. So he doesn't talk about it.
But the problem is still there. According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate has gone from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 13.2 percent in 2008 to 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 percent in 2010 to 15.0 percent in 2011. The last time it was higher than 15.1 percent was in 1965, when the nation's anti-poverty programs were just taking effect.
According to aides, Romney has thought about, and been concerned about, poverty his entire life. They point to a biographical video the Romney campaign produced for the Republican convention and now plays before campaign events around the country. The video features old film of George Romney, Mitt's father, saying, "I've been poor. I've worked from the time I was 12. I know what poverty is, I've been up through it."
Indeed, on the stump, Mitt Romney often talks about his father's modest beginnings. "There were times in my dad's life when he lived in poverty," Romney said in a speech to a Hispanic group in June. "My dad didn't finish college ... He held odd jobs -- lath and plaster and selling paint. He was lucky enough to live in America, where hard work can turn aspirations into realities." The elder Romney went on to become CEO of American Motors and, later, governor of Michigan.
Of course, Mitt Romney never lived in poverty and is today fabulously wealthy. But he heard his father every day growing up, and it's probably fair to say that he hears him still today. And so Romney thinks about poverty and what to do about it. He believes his proposals to spur economic growth will lift large numbers of Americans out of poverty. And he's willing to talk about it.
The irony is that, after the leak of the "47 percent" video on Sept. 17, Romney has fought the charge that he doesn't care about the poor. But the fact is, if you listen to both Romney and Obama on the stump, you will hear concern about the nation's poor from one candidate and virtually nothing from the other.