Obama, McCain all but ignore poverty issue


PRINCETON — Barack Obama worked for three years as a community organizer on Chicago’s blighted South Side, so he knows all about the real poverty that exists in America. He knows that in one of the world’s richest nations, 37 million people live in poverty, a far higher proportion than in Europe’s wealthy nations. Yet Obama’s campaigning has focused on “Main Street” and tax cuts for the middle class, bypassing the issue of what to do about poverty.

It’s not as if Obama has no policies for helping the poor. Go to his Web site, click on “The Issues” and then on “Poverty.” There you will find a set of thoughtful proposals ranging from raising the minimum wage to establishing model “Promise Neighborhoods” that will attempt to turn around areas with high levels of poverty and low levels of educational achievement by providing services such as early childhood education and crime prevention. (Go to John McCain’s Web site, and you won’t even find “poverty” among the list of issues to click on — although “Space Program” is there.)

So why isn’t Obama speaking up about an issue on which he has so much more firsthand experience than his opponent, and better policies, too? Perhaps not enough of the poor vote, or they will vote Democratic anyway. Moreover, his researchers presumably have told him that independent middle-class voters are more likely to be won over by appeals to their wallets than to concern for America’s poor.

If America’s poor don’t rank high among voters’ concerns, it is no surprise that the poor abroad are virtually invisible. Again, Obama has both the background — with his family ties to Kenya — and a promising policy, to increase America’s foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012, using the money to stabilize failing states and bring sustainable growth to Africa. (Currently, of all the OECD donor nations, only Greece gives a lower percentage of its gross national income than the United States does.)

But when Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, was asked, in his debate with his Republican counterpart, Sarah Palin, what proposals an Obama-Biden administration might have to scale back as a result of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, the only specific proposal he mentioned was the increase in foreign assistance. McCain has never gotten down to specifics about how much foreign aid he would like the U.S. to give.

Both candidates refer to deaths of American military personnel in Iraq, but there has been less attention to the war’s civilian causalities. In her debate with Biden, Palin actually attacked Obama for saying that, in her words, “All we’re doing in Afghanistan is air-raiding villages and killing civilians.” She called that comment “reckless” and “untrue,” because, “That’s not what we’re doing there. We’re fighting terrorists, and we’re securing democracy.”

Of course, killing civilians is not all that the U.S. and its NATO allies are doing in Afghanistan, and if Obama implied that it was, his rhetoric was careless. But what is extraordinary about Palin’s comment is that, despite being a strong proponent of the sanctity of human life, in criticizing Obama she did not pause to deplore the serious loss of innocent human life that American airstrikes in Afghanistan have caused. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has repeatedly expressed outrage at American airstrikes that have killed civilians — most recently in August, when he said that 95 Afghans, including 50 children, were killed in the bombing of a village.

The global ethical challenge that has been most prominent in the campaign is climate change. Here, the candidates’ goals are virtually identical: they both support a cap-and-trade system to make deep cuts in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Obama wants the goal to be an 80 percent reduction and McCain says 66 percent, but, since the next president will leave office no later than 2016, that difference is irrelevant.

Interestingly, one ethical issue on which neither candidate has campaigned has been shown to have the potential to move voters. A group called Defenders of Wildlife has been running an ad graphically highlighting Palin’s support for shooting wolves from aircraft. A study of Republicans, Democrats and independents showed that viewing the ad led to greater support for Obama.

According to Glenn Kessler, the head of HCD research, which conducted the study with the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, whereas recent ads from both parties have had little impact among voters, “This is the first ad in over a month that seems to have broken through.” Consistent with that finding, an historic ballot initiative in California to ban cruel forms of animal confinement on factory farms, including the battery cage system of keeping hens, is also showing strong support.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He is currently working on a book about world poverty. © 2008 Project Syndicate