The official poverty rate for the United States in 2010 was 15.1 percent. There were 46.2 million individuals who were poor, defined as a family of four living on an income of under $23,050. Much has been written about the “invisible poor,” and both major political parties have contributed considerably to this perspective. So much rhetoric is directed toward the middle class. We talk about lowering taxes for the middle class; about providing jobs for the middle class; about having affordable housing for the middle class; about educational opportunities for the middle class; about having reasonably priced and skilled health care for the middle class. One listens to this and it doesn’t sound so bad to be middle class; in fact it sounds downright good.
Much has also been written about the fixation of those people in the United States who are not wealthy but who aspire to be rich. Occasionally, this happens, because we are a society in which dreams of greater success certainly can come true. Our political conventions are full of “rags to riches” stories, and even if a tiny handful of them are actually true, the fact remains that there are those who are poor or of modest means who achieve affluence, usually through access to quality education, hard work, and frequently, some well-deserved luck.
One thing that those who are poor and those who are in the middle class have in common is a dream that lightning could strike any day, and they will join the ranks of the very rich. This is the “tomorrow I’ll win the lottery” syndrome. Yes, that’s true, if you believe that odds that are millions to one are a good bet. Enough people believe that this is going to happen that they let this dream trump what is in their economic self-interest and agree to support the Republican ideas of lowering taxes for the very wealthy, and establishing a socialistic-like welfare state for ….. the very wealthy, like Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.
The masses are often numbed to reality and play right into the hands of wealthy Republicans. While poor people may hold this dream even more firmly than those in the middle class, the rhetoric of Republicans, and often Democrats, is directed to those in the middle class. because they are more likely to vote, particularly in an era of increasing voter suppression.
This leads to one of the most remarkable, yet simple, statements by former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, September 5, 2012. Clinton said,
“We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think ‘we’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’”
President Clinton took the realistic point of view that it is reasonable for poor people to aspire to rise to the middle class where they can have adequate access to health, education, housing, and a suitable quality of life. This is a vast improvement for a family of four living on $23,000 a year, or an individual living on $10,000. By setting a realistic goal for those who are poor, Clinton gives hope that life can improve without waiting for the nearly impossibly happening of winning the lottery. He educates those who are poor and those who are in the middle class to learn that what is in their self-interest are economic policies that directly help them, rather than unlikely fantasies about becoming as wealthy as Romney. Access to health care at affordable prices, quality public education, Pell Grants for college, accessible and reasonably priced mortgages, food that is affordable and safe, and perhaps most importantl, jobs that pay decent wages and have the permanence that those of a generation or two ago had is just fine.
President Clinton went on to say,
“It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.”
Reviews of Clinton’s speech have noted how accurate his facts were, in particular contrast to many speakers at the Republican National Convention, including Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. But Clinton not only got his facts right; he got his concepts right.
Clinton knows what American life is like. He grew up poor in Hope, Arkansas. With a salary in the mid-$30,000s, his life was middle class even as governor of Arkansas. Once president, he became well-off, and as a former president he has become both quite wealthy and also extremely charitable.
His path to wealth involved taking advantage of fair and reasonable opportunities that were available to him, including good public schooling, scholarship aid to Georgetown University and Yale Law School. He worked extremely hard and had a clear sense of direction. He did not spend idle hours dreaming of stashing his money away in the Cayman Islands or banks in the Swiss Alps. He voted in both his own interest as well as those of the many poor and middle income individuals and families in Arkansas and elsewhere.
Republicans succeed in large part because they hoodwink many individuals into voting against their self-interest (as described particularly well in Thomas Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) This is one of America’s greatest tragedies. As a very wise person said following the speech, Bill Clinton ought to be “Secretary of Explaining Things.” If he was, we’d be a much wiser country and improvements in the quality of life for those who need it most would improve exponentially. Since that’s not possible, perhaps it’s time for President Obama to make Bill Clinton a full-time member of the team with the more realistic title of: community organizer.