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So, the State of the Union is strong, is it? Well, maybe it is for the people the President chose to speak about last night. But what about the ones he only mentioned in passing, or the ones that he omitted to mention at all? What about the state of the union for those Americans in, or on the edge of, poverty? What about the state of the union for those in the process, or on the edge, of losing their homes; or for those young working families trying to combine low-paid work, full-time child-care and inadequate child support? Is the state of the union fine for them? No, it is not.
Catalog speeches are never the best, and this State of the Union Address, like so many before it, was very much a catalog. Here we had a President, elected with a clear majority, with an opportunity to lay out a clear vision and a clear philosophy for the country to follow. And there were moments in the speech when vision and philosophy briefly surfaced: when a general defense of smart government was on offer, and when an appeal to unite around modest agreed reforms was strongly pushed. But mainly the Address was a catalog of things he wanted Congress to do – mostly things to do which we had heard about before – with some pretty pedestrian linkages taking us from one desired thing to another. True, the Address was vaguely populist in tone, and no doubt offensive to Tea Party Republicans for that reason; and we did hear briefly – really for the first time in this President’s State of the Union Addresses – about problems of poverty, about problems of gender discrimination in pay; and about the need for a significant increase in the minimum wage and the future index-linking of that minimum wage to the cost of living. All that was good to hear.
But mainly what we got from the President last night, even in the most populist moments of the Address, were superficial proposals that at best could only scrape the surface of problems so deeply embedded in our society that their solution clearly requires root-and-branch reform. It was not so much that problems were ignored in the Address. It was rather that the solutions offered to them were sufficiently modest as to seem at times almost derisible.
Why are these policy responses inadequate? They are inadequate because of the scale of the problems they address but fail to match.
As I listened to the Address last night, I could not help thinking of the contrast between what we can do militarily and what we choose to socially. It is a remarkable feature of our modern condition that we possess (and apparently regularly use) a military technology that can locate, identify and destroy an al Qaeda operative living in the midst of crowds thousands of miles away; at the very time when many of our political leaders seem incapable of locating – let along attacking – the mass poverty that is staring them in the face every time they go outside their office door. After all Washington DC is not just the nation’s capital. It’s also home to 630,000 people, half of whom are African-American and one in five of whom is actually officially poor! That’s a higher poverty rate for the capital city of a Union that is apparently strong than for any state in that Union other than Mississippi. To politicians blind to the inequalities which surround us, the state of the union may look great inside the beltway, at least if you’re not one of the 19% of Washington DC’s residents who are struggling with low pay or unemployment. But please, can we stop pretending that it is possible to be genuinely progressive in modern America without making the alleviation of poverty our absolute top priority. And can we stop pretending too that if we create “ladders into the middle class,” the problem of poverty will somehow vanish. It will not. Ladders only help people leave poverty behind. They don’t remove poverty; they simply enable a favored few to escape from it. Societies only remove poverty by eradicating it – by raising the floor for everyone – and that eradication, and thereby the creation of a genuinely strong union, requires policies that are far more radical than any that surfaced in last night’s Address.
Last night there was poverty aplenty in the state of the union: poverty in policy and vision in Washington, to match the poverty of so many of our neighbors in the rest of America. Last night was an opportunity lost.
First posted at www.davidcoates.net
 US Census Bureau, Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States 2011, available at http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb12-172.html
 On the Bureau’s own updated figures, the total in 2011 would be 49.7 million. On this, see Ben Casselman, “Alternative Measure Sees More People Living in Poverty,” The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2012: available at http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2012/11/14/alternative-measure-sees-more-people-living-in-poverty/
 Take those programs away, and the poverty rate would rise to a staggering 28.6%; See https://twitter.com/CenterOnBudget/status/299220140418015233
 See One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008: available at www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/.../Reports/.../one_in_100.pdf
 Joel Berg, How President Obama Can Reverse America’s Worsening Hunger Metrics, Center for American Progress, February 4, 2013: available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/report/2013/02/04/51178/how-president-obama-can-reverse-americas-worsening-hunger-metrics/
 Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry, ‘The Myth of a Stagnant Middle Class,” The Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2013: available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323468604578249723138161566.html
 Neil Irwin, ‘Yes, the middle class really is falling behind,” The Washington Post, January 24, 2013: available at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DemocraticLeft/message/45794
 Pam Fessler, Study: Nearly Half In U.S. Lack Financial Safety Net, NPR January 30, 2013: available at http://www.npr.org/2013/01/30/170561872/study-nearly-half-in-u-s-lack-financial-safety-net
 Dan Immergluck, “Too Little, Too Late, and Too Timid: The Federal Response to the Foreclosure Crisis at the Five Year Mark,” Housing Policy Debate, 2012: available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1930686
The Immergluck paper has the number of foreclosures on the Obama watch lower, at 5.3 million.
 Christopher Niedt and Isaac William Martin, “Who are the foreclosed? A statistical Portrait of America in Crisis,” Housing Policy Debate, December 2012: available at www.hofstra.edu/Faculty/fac_profiles.cfm?id=1087
 The net worth of black households fell by 53% between 2005 and 2009, with African-Americans drawing 59% of their net worth from home equity in 2005. The equivalent figures for white Americans were 16% and 44%. (Source: Pew Research Center, Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics, Washington DC, July 2011: available at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics/
Carlo Morello and Annie Gowen, “Poverty grows in high-income Washington suburbs,” The Washington Post, September 21, 2012 :available at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-09-21/local/35497613_1_poverty-rates-number-of-poor-people-national-rate