WASHINGTON – Candidates in the 2012 presidential race rarely touched on the issue of poverty in America until Monday night’s Republican debate, just days before the South Carolina primary.

“They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money,” Republican candidate Newt Gingrich said, defending past assertions that poor kids should be put to work in schools.

According to a poll commissioned by the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Americans see poverty as an important factor when choosing a candidate. The poll also noted that economic hardships of Americans also have not been covered enough by the media. Tuesday morning, two panels of news leaders and researchers delved deeper into the following key findings:

(Shirley Li/Medill)

by Rebecca Nelson

In the presidential race, it all revolves around the economy. A nationwide unemployment rate of 8.5 percent at the end of 2011 means candidates must showcase how they’ll pull America out of economic crisis.

But along with the flailing economy comes hardship for real people – low-income Americans mired in poverty. In a panel Tuesday on how the problems these people face will affect the 2012 election, Dave Winston, president of The Winston Group, a polling and strategy company, said poverty is only one element of the broader economic dilemma.

“Poverty reflects an economy that is clearly struggling,” Winston said.
According to the 2010 Census, America’s poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent – the highest it’s been since 1993. In 2009, 14.3 percent of Americans lived in poverty.

The panel, moderated by Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris, also featured Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. Tanden echoed Winston. “The question of whether we have an economy that works for everyone and ensures that we have a strong and stable middle class will be the first, second, third and fourth issue in this election,” she said. “It will be an issue between the parties.”

But how this translates into poverty policy, Tanden said, is a different matter. The panelists agreed that the candidates need to focus on how to make life better for poor Americans. In light of unifying poll numbers on the issue, Winston noted the cloudy focus on poverty in the presidential campaign.
“People want to hear what it is you’re proposing [to solve the problem],” he said. “Not why the other person is wrong.”

Instead of simply identifying an already obvious problem, the panelists said that voters will be looking for the candidates to offer solutions – whether it’s making poor kids school janitors, as Gingrich suggested, or something else.

by Shirley Li

Newt Gingrich’s tough words Monday night not only drew cheers from his audience, but also prompted an examination into the role of journalists when covering poverty in America.

In recent years, poverty has become a “commodity,” according to Maureen Bunyan, a news anchor for WJLA, the ABC News affiliate in Washington.

“The poor has become a commodity and we, especially in the media, have to be very careful about how we deal with this commodity,” she said during a forum on poverty at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Poor people are not just out there for us to look at, to measure, to take pictures of, to use and to make money off of.”

However, this perspective is not solely the fault of journalists, said op-ed columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. In addressing the slumping economy, Dionne said politicians tend to focus on the middle class and ignore the poor, thus causing journalists to stray far from the issue as well.

“The biggest frustration is that these issues don’t get covered,” he said. “We’re not making good enough arguments.”

Because of this, even Gingrich’s rousing comments at the South Carolina debate will not capture the right kind of media attention, said Pam Fessler, NPR’s Washington correspondent on poverty and philanthropy. Fessler said the debate sparked more media attention on poverty – just not from the right angle.

Coverage of the poor through the lens of the 2012 presidential campaign only caused Americans to see things in black and white, she said. Instead, Fessler argued journalists should spend more time talking to low-income households rather than merely covering candidates and their talking points on the issue.

“My point is, it’s a lot easier for most media organizations to cover that debate…than to actually go out and spend time talking to people,” she said.

Ultimately, Fessler said the media do not adequately cover poverty, because most journalists don’t find the issue – or its solutions – newsworthy.

“How do you get poor people from here to there?” she said. “We haven’t really heard about solutions.”