Politico, July 9, 2008: Polls show high interest in poverty issue

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By: Alexander Burns
July 9, 2008 04:58 PM EST

Americans want the news media to focus more on poverty during the current presidential campaign, according to a new poll commissioned by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, an initiative that raises awareness about economic distress in America.

The survey, conducted by McLaughlin and Associates, asked voters whether they believed the media had devoted “an adequate amount of time during the presidential campaign covering the issue of how to fight poverty in the U.S.” Fifty-six percent of respondents disagreed with that statement.

“We۪d noticed that poverty has been more discussed in this presidential campaign than we۪d expected, or seen in the recent past,” said Tom Freedman, a former senior White House aide who edits the commentary section of Spotlight on Poverty۪s website. “The poll tends to show that the political conventional wisdom that voters don۪t care about this issue is wrong.”

The survey polled 1,000 likely voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Earlier this year, Spotlight on Poverty released a study showing that coverage of poverty as a political issue increased by 145 percent from 2003 to 2007.

But if its newest poll is right, the public wants still more.

In a write-up of the survey, Freedman and John Bridgeland, a former director of the USA Freedom Corps involved in Spotlight on Poverty, emphasized that interest in the subject of poverty transcended party lines.

“Even among Republicans and Democrats, the answers were similar,” they wrote. “A majority of each felt there hadn۪t been [an] adequate amount of time spent on the topic.”

Freedman sees several possible explanations for the uptick in public interest, and in media coverage. Presidential candidates have been talking more about the issue. Evangelicals have gotten more engaged with anti-poverty activism. And with the “economy tightening,” Freedman said, it makes sense that voters would want to hear more about anti-poverty policies.

Another recent McLaughlin poll, commissioned by the Alliance to End Hunger, seems to confirm this assessment: when asked to choose from a list of statements describing how much they had been affected by food price increases, 27.7 percent of respondents selected: “Very much. I worry about me or someone I know going hungry.”

Given these findings, Max Finberg, director of the Alliance to End Hunger, thinks presidential candidates will have to address poverty issues more extensively as the campaign continues.

“As our poll is showing, they۪re not going to be able to get away from it,” said Finberg, who credits former Sen. John Edwards with making poverty a point of greater focus in the presidential campaign.

Freedman agrees that presidential candidates have helped increase the public۪s attention to these issues. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have unveiled anti-poverty measures in their campaigns, and McCain went on a tour of impoverished areas earlier this year.

“We۪ve been pretty happy about their involvement in the issue,” Freedman said.

Finberg also applauded McCain and Obama۪s efforts so far, noting that Obama spoke about poverty as a major motivating issue in his campaign announcement speech, and that McCain has released a plan to combat hunger through federal support for food banks.

But, he added, “They need to do more,” and the media need to help.

“There۪s not enough coverage, even when CNN and others are talking about it.,” he said.

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