I want to hear about poverty. I want the so-called “food stamp President” to turn that slur into a cause and eloquently share with the American public the real stories of people who would go hungry without the SNAP program. I want the President to lay out an aggressive agenda for cutting the poverty rate by at least 25% by the end of the second term he’s campaigning for (as a down payment on cutting poverty by half in ten years). In short, I want to know what President Obama thinks our government can and must do for the bottom 15%, not just the mythically universal 99%.
Inequality is certainly a problem in this country, and many will try to make the argument that it actually is the root of the economic problems that make millions of people poor. But when conservatives are stoking racist resentment by railing against the poor; progressives (and the President) can’t only talk about the middle class. If they do, they play into a not-so-subtle racial frame that’s been at work in this country for generations; the middle class is the universalized norm, but the poor are the racialized other.
A race-free speech about how the game has been rigged against the middle class or the 99% may make the 1% uncomfortable. It may even lay out some very good economic ideas for addressing inequality. But that kind of speech won’t do anything about the deep structural factors that have pushed 46 million people into poverty. And nice words about middle class values won’t challenge the deeply held biases and stereotypes that make people indifferent to those suffering from poverty, homelessness, hunger, etc. Talking about the bottom 15% may make more than the richest 1% uncomfortable, which probably isn’t politically expedient but it is the kind of leadership that our communities need.