Spotlight Exclusives

The Future of Poverty as a Political Issue

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Last week we officially launched this Spotlight website and released new polling on what voters want candidates to do about poverty. There was a lot of good feeling as leaders like Jack Kemp, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and current DLC chair Harold Ford agreed on the need to take action. Now the hard question about the politics of poverty: will anything useful happen in 2008 and if so how?

The polling,, seems to indicate there is a good chance for candidates to take action. A not insubstantial 7% of all likely voters say “reducing hunger and poverty” is the most important issue in deciding their next vote for Congress or the US Senate. That۪s not as much as some traditional favorites like “Health Care” (18%) or “Education” (11%), but it۪s more than conventional political wisdom would predict. Indeed, it۪s greater than the number of likely voters who say the most important voting issue for them is the “Environment” (5%). And an astounding 42% said fighting hunger and poverty is the biggest moral issue outpacing abortion, gay marriage as well as the environment.

Its worth pointing out that while I, a Democrat, worked on the poll, so did Jim McLaughlin who fielded the poll and helped analyze it. Jim is a well-respected Republican pollster who has polled for everyone from the conservative House Republican leadership and the Republican senate campaign committee (NRSC) to Bob Dole۪s 1996 presidential campaign.

So what prospect do we have for real action coming out of voter interest in poverty? Events like this website launch and work by other groups and foundations indicates something is happening and potential catalysts are taking up the cause. And we see some candidates talking more about poverty than in past years. A study we are currently undertaking and will release soon indicates media coverage of the issue is up in 2007 compared to 2003, the last year before a presidential election. And our polling indicates voters think problems like hunger in the US and around the world is getting worse. So there are some signs that the political process will take action a problem that is seen as getting worse, voters who care, some groups mobilizing, and a moral cause to be taken up.

So far, the wheels are grinding in the right direction, but the debate has yet to be fully joined. Issues often become new policies when one side sees an advantage and the other engages or works together to make progress. We may see such a phenomenon in the general election. In 2006 the minimum wage campaign went 6 for 6 in passing state ballot initiatives success that spread to congressional passage of a federal raise in the minimum wage. The next steps may be the crystallization of the debate around a few key anti-poverty measures such as Chairman Rangel۪s proposal on the Earned Income Tax Credit, and a focus of attention on where candidates stand on this or alternative approaches.

It۪s an important moment in the anti-poverty movement groups and voters lining up, interest gaining. The work and wait is on to see whether the issue can breakthrough and become a more top-tier issue in the 2008 campaign and for the next Administration.

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