Poverty in America

Homeless_Vet_With_FlagThe Poor Get Poorer

“The moral test of government,” Hubert Humphrey once said, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

By that measure, we are failing. The Great Recession has ripped another huge hole in the fabric of America life and the poverty rate, as reported this week, is at a 15-year high and expected to go higher in 2010. More than 43 million Americans, one in 7 in the country, now officially live in poverty. Those numbers take us back to 1959 when about the same number of Americans were officially poor. The numbers are considerably worse for African-Americans and Hispanics, with a quarter of all Hispanics and 36 percent of African-American children living in poverty.

The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, notes that poverty rates have been on a steady upward trend line since the late 1970’s. The Institute’s director, Dr. Timothy M. Smeeding, told the New York Times that the poverty numbers would be a lot worse if many people hadn’t had someone to move in with during the recession. The Times also noted in its front page story that the temporary aid – the stimulus and extension of unemployment benefits, for instance – that has been so controversial in Congress, has undoubtedly “eased the burdens of millions of families.”

Meanwhile, the debate rages in Washington over whether to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The Miami Herald has put together a helpful Q-A format report on just what is involved with the great 2010 debate over taxes. It is worth a look if you are as confused as I suspect most of us are about the generally out of touch rhetoric about “tax cuts.”

One takeaway, extending or ending the Bush cuts for the wealthiest Americans – families with adjusted gross income of $250,000 or more – impacts about 2.9 million Americans. Or, put another way about 40 million fewer people than are reported living in poverty.

In point of fact, the very, very rich pay taxes at significantly lower rates that most other Americans because so much of their income is in capital gains and dividends. The IRS has reported that the wealthiest 400 taxpayers in the United States in 2007, paid about 16.6 percent of their income in taxes.

Also worth considering: America’s income gap has been steadily growing since the late 1970’s. One wonders if there is any correlation between that fact and the steady increase in poverty in the same period?

“Each of America’s two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern” argues Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich in a recent essay.

“Consider,” Reich wrote, “in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America’s total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928—with 23.5 percent of the total.”

It is difficult – maybe impossible – to maintain for long a cohesive, forward-moving country with such a vast gap among the haves and have nots, with so many out of work, out of opportunity, worried about the next meal, the next need to visit the doctor or the next pair of shoes for the kids.The reality of this fact – the bleak circumstances of our fellow Americans in the shadows – is mostly lost in the current political debate over tax cuts, deficits and the struggling economy.

As The Guardian noted – you gotta love those Brits – “in a strange paradox, the party that is accused of doing too little to combat the crisis is poised to suffer heavy defeats in the upcoming mid-term elections by the party accused of doing nothing at all.”

It was hard to miss the paradox – or is it irony – of the “jump” of the Times story on poverty, which began on Friday’s page one and ended next to the Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany’s and Tod’s ads on page three.

Macy’s was touting an animal print mink jacket for $4,995 and Tod’s had a really nice purse for $1,495. Marketing to the one percent, I guess.

Ed Newman

NewmanThe Old School

You wonder if a guy as gifted and rumpled as Edwin Newman could find a job in television these days. He might be considered too erudite, too wordy for the small screen that these days is crowded with graphics, crawls and, often, vacuous, but handsome talking heads.

Ed Newman, whose death was reported yesterday, was a television journalist in the days before “caw-caw,” what we used to call the bells and whistles of TV, the spinning graphics, the split screens, etc. His reporting was of the old school. He was a master of language. He wrote good books, asked tough, fair and informed questions and seemed to have an interest in everything. Put another way, the guy was no Bill O’Reilly.

The great NBC News anchor John Chancellor said Newman style was a triumph of “content over presentation,” and he could do it all – interview, moderate a presidential debate, report an arts piece or analyze an foreign policy development. The guy was a reporter. After retiring, he even even once hosted Saturday Night Live.

Newman was in the same class with a Cronkite and a Schorr, two other recently departed broadcast icons whose work and style can’t be replaced and whose quality is essentially not to be found on the tube these days. Newman’s passing makes me long for the old school – news first, from real journalists, with entertainment or mere diversion left for the sitcoms.


castleA Big Tent or a Pup Tent

Ronald Reagan defined and built the modern Republican Party. No one would accuse the former president of being anything but a card carrying conservative, even though he was once a Democrat who supported Franklin Roosevelt and campaigned for Harry Truman. Reagan knew a national party had to spread a “big tent” that included Northeastern moderates (even some liberals) and southern conservatives.

Reagan won two terms in the White House appealing to what became know as Reagan Democrats; families with union members, big city ethnic voters and what we used to call in Idaho “lunch bucket” Democrats. Reagan was also smart enough to build on the “southern strategy,” employed so successfully by Richard Nixon, that essentially turned the Old Confederacy into the modern GOP base.

Reagan’s was a grand strategy, an inclusive strategy, a winning strategy. It has only become clear, with the benefit of time and hindsight, that the Gipper defined a political generation. That may be close to over. Reagan’s “big tent” this morning looks a little like a flimsy dining fly, or maybe a two-person pup tent.

After an insurgent Republican, Tea Party supporter defeated moderate Delaware Republican Mike Castle yesterday (that’s him above looking as glum as he must feel today), one can almost write the obituary for the moderate Republican. My old boss, Cecil Andrus, used to joke when he was labeled “a liberal” by someone, that most Idaho Democrats were as far removed from eastern liberals like Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, and Jacob Javits, a Republican, as Long Island is removed from Priest Lake. Those were the days when the GOP really had, dare it be said, liberals.

In the east Javits, a power in the Senate from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, proudly called himself a liberal. So did fellow New Yorkers Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay and New Jersey’s Clifford Case. Out west, Oregon produced two moderate to liberal GOP Senators in the not-to-distant past, Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield. Today, none of these guys could win a Republican primary.

But, back to Castle. A former governor and long-time Congressman, he got himself tagged as “the establishment” candidate in a year when that label hangs like a noose around a candidate’s neck. The woman who beat him, Christine O’Donnell, appears to have one overriding public accomplishment – she is against masturbation and has spoken out often against the same. But, I digress. O’Donnell’s real attack on the genuinely nice guy Castle was to label him a RINO – Republican in Name Only. As one Delaware reporter put it, Castle was “thrown off track by a flash of conservative voter anger and a flood of political rhetoric poisonous to anyone in the middle.”

Republicans appear at the edge of an historic victory this fall, a circumstance driven by worry about the economy, uncertainty about the man in the White House and an old fashioned “throw the bums out” sense of anger. But, anger isn’t a governing strategy, particularly when the party seems to be growing narrower and narrower in its national appeal. As GOP strategist Mark McKinnon notes today, “the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the Establishment) has now backed eight losing candidates. In other words, this grass-roots anti-establishment wave actually threatens the GOP’s chances of taking control of the Senate.”

Democrats, to be sure, have their own intra-party challenges, but somehow the national party has found a way to accommodate conservative Blue Dogs like Idaho’s Walt Minnick and big city liberals like Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be in the purge business. The party, much like Democrats in the late 1960’s when insurgents were in control, is a party at war with itself. Republicans will win a lot of elections this fall, but they may wake up the day after the election with an identity hang over and with a party – much like an apartment where too much rough housing has taken place – that is in disarray.

A political party, particularly one that has suffered a big defeat, often must endure an internal battle over its identity. In that respect, the national GOP is playing by the historical rules. What may have lasting consequences, however, is the basic political math. Politics, as the old saying goes, is a game of addition not subtraction.

The purpose of a national party is to attract supporters, not purge them.The GOP’s last great party builder, Ronald Reagan, certainly knew that.

A Declining Presidency

DallekLess Imperial, More Reactive

Robert Dallek is one of the best of the current crop of presidential historians. He’s fair-minded and a scholar, but also possesses a keen ability to link the present to the historic. It was no accident that when President Obama, not once but twice, had a small group of historians to the White House for dinner, Bob Dallek was on the guest list along with Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin and a half dozen others.

He’s also discreet. When I visited with him a few weeks ago, Dallek was carefully respecting his own ground rules for the White House salon. He said he’d gladly talk about what he had told the President, but wouldn’t attempt to interpret Obama’s response or reaction. Others in attendance, at least at the first dinner, haven’t been so careful. The brilliant and provocative Garry Wills wrote a while back about his advice to Obama and his disappointment with the president. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wills didn’t get invited back. Wills has argued that Obama is making a Kennedy/Johnson-like mistake by pursuing the path he is on in Afghanistan.

In a nutshell, Dallek said he also warned Obama about the historical quagmire that Afghanistan has been and looks like has become again.

Bob Dallek’s books about JFK and LBJ are important and enduring works and give him a perspective on Obama’s challenges that is worth attention. Dallek is on to something with his observation to the New York Times’ Matt Bai this past weekend that we are seeing “the diminished power, the diminished authority, the diminished capacity to shape events” of the Obama presidency.

Since at least 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt put his hands on the levers of presidential power, each succeeding president has attempted – many have succeeded – in expanding the authority of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once famously called “the imperial presidency.” We may be seeing the decline of that all powerful, too powerful perhaps, presidency.

It is, Bob Dallek says, “the presidency in eclipse.”

I tend to the historical view that the presidency has, since FDR’s day, become too powerful and that Congress has lost its way in checking that power, particularly when Congress acquiesces to foreign policy adventures cooked up by presidents of both parties. So, a pulling in of presidential power is not an altogether unwelcome turn of event, whatever the cause.

Still, there is a problem. Is it conceivable the current Congress – on both sides of the aisle – is capable of exercising more responsible authority? Can the Congress rise, while the presidency is in eclipse? Don’t hold your breath.

The days when a J. William Fulbright, a Frank Church, a Howard Baker or an Everett Dirksen could speak with moral and political authority – and often in opposition to a president – on a national or international issue seem like a distant memory. The Founders envisioned a separation of powers in the national government with each one of the three branches purposely structured to check the influence and power of the others.

If it is correct, for a variety of reasons, that Barack Obama is presiding over a shrinking presidency, then the leadership of Congress must step up their game. The balance envisioned by the Founders has to work and the responsibly for ensuring that it does is both diffused and shared.

(Note: Bob Dallek’s latest book – The Lost Peace – a history of the immediate post-war period, will be out in October.)

BSU and the BCS

BCSPerception is Reality

There is an old truism in the world of politics that holds that how something is perceived is how it is. Even if the perception is not a fair representation of reality, and it frequently isn’t in politics, it doesn’t matter. Perception becomes reality and the smart candidate or office holder learns to deal with the new “reality.”

Boise State University’s aspiring football team is finding that the old truism holds regarding its national standing, as well.

Boise State didn’t even play this week and lost ground. The much ballyhooed BSU season opener against Virginia Tech lived up to the hype with the Broncos winning in the final moments of an exciting game, but then Virginia Tech went and lost its second game against a much inferior opponent, lowly James Madison. (No good can come from a major football power losing to a school named for a president, even if he was the principal author of the Constitution.)

So, after a thrilling win against a team – Virginia Tech – that once also aspired to a national title, Boise State is left with the reality of having the team that was supposed to be its toughest opponent all year being 0-2 two weeks into the season.

The Boston Globe’s college football writer listed BSU as among the “big losers” after the Hokies’ stumble. While saying it was too early to make definitive judgments about national title contenders, the New York Times nonetheless suggested that Boise State might well be left on the outside looking in. It reminds me of the old Rodney Dangerfield line: “I don’t get no respect.”

Here’s the problem, and in this case, its not just perception, but also reality. The Boise State schedule don’t get no respect. Consider that the other top teams in the country – Alabama, Ohio State, TCU and Oregon – all have had a test so far in the young season and their schedules arguably get much tougher going forward. Week-in and week-out, these teams play better opponents in big stadiums for higher stakes.

Take the Crimson Tide of Alabama, for instance. Over the next three weeks, the current number one ranked college football team will play at Duke, at Arkansas and home against Florida. Those road games, not counting television, will be played in front of more than 100,000 fans. When Florida comes to Tuscaloosa, the ghost of Bear Bryant will walk the sidelines in a stadium named after him, while nearly 102,000 wild-eyed Tide fans look on, not quietly. That is the big time – really.

The reality in Bronco Nation is stark: the perception is that the Broncos really don’t play all season with the big boys and, as a result, they don’t belong in the same elite company. Writing in the Washington Post after the Virginia Tech game, Tracee Hamilton said it well regarding the BSU reality: “Your toughest game shouldn’t be your first. But if you are by far the best team in your league, all you can do is to put two ranked teams on your non-conference schedule and hope for some help in moving up the rankings.”

Take nothing away – really – from Chris Petersen’s sterling record, the big game wins over Oklahoma and TCU, but that perception about a weak schedule in an out of the way part of the football world is, well, reality. Bronco fans may be disappointed – again.

The Nazis Burned Books, Too

book burningNo Good Comes From This

Unfortunately there is a long history of humans believing they can destroy ideas by burning the books that contain those ideas. The practice hardly began with a crackpot preacher in Florida, but dates back to the Inquisition, the Spanish conquest of the “New World” and even ancient China.

In May of 1933, in the town where Martin Luther nailed his famous Theses to the church door, pro-Nazi students burned 25,000 books deemed “un-German.” Included were works by the German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, a guy named Hemingway and, of course, works by Karl Marx, Socialists and Jews. The pictures and what they foretold are haunting and should tell us something.

Two things about the story out of Florida are worth noting it seems to me. The first is the enormous media attention lavished on Rev. Terry Jones. Not bad for a guy, as Gail Collins pointed out, who has built a thriving congregation of “about 50 people.” In a matter of hours, Jones’ plan to burn the Quran went viral sparking protests in Afghanistan, worry about the impact on our soldiers in the field, comments from every politician in the nation, etc. More important, perhaps, the Aljazerra website has been all over the story.

Additionally, I’m struck by the fact – as we approach the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks – how far we have come, in the wrong direction, in building a worldwide consensus to oppose the radical forces that operate in the shadow of Islam.

I remember George W. Bush – megaphone in hand, standing on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center – and the profound sense that the United States, at that huge moment in time, had the moral force to lead a worldwide effort to confront extremism. For a brief moment, the world was with us, but…well, apparently we blew it and here we are nine years later.

Now I fear the message sent by Rev, Jones, and folks like Newt Gingrich fulminating against a Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, paints America as unfaithful to our own professed and cherished traditions of religious freedom and tolerance. A perception of hypocrisy doesn’t play well in any culture.

Books – even books we would never read or whose content we abhor – are important things. They are symbols, as well as repositories of history, culture and, at a very important level, tolerance.

I’m not a big fan of Sidney Shelton or Barbara Cartland. In fact, I’ve never cracked a cover of either of those best selling authors, but they have huge followings and you have to respect that. I don’t read the Quran, either, but 22% of the people on the planet do and their numbers are growing at a rate faster than the world’s population.

Sending a billion and a half people regular telegrams from America with a message that we hate them doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

It also doesn’t seem like America.