The “p” words

Leaders don't want to talk about poverty and the poor because we don't want to hear about it. They should talk about it anyway.

The national dialogue on poverty: That didn’t last long, did it? We’d rather talk about a salacious political scandal—hell, we’d rather talk about anything—than about poverty. And our leaders know it.

As former Clinton White House speechwriter Jeff Shesol wrote last week in The New Yorker, “A word search of the past fifty State of the Union addresses … turns up very few mentions of ‘poverty’ or the ‘poor.’”

Why? Because “helping the poor is an idea that (forgive me) polls poorly,” Shesol writes.

And why does pontification on poverty poll poorly? “Whatever the accomplishments of the war on poverty—and there were many—its disappointments created a kind of collective exhaustion with the subject and the complex political, moral, and economic questions it raises about our shared obligation to those among us with the least.”

Still, Shesol says: “To really reckon with something, it has to be named, called out, described … Americans knew, listening to L.B.J., that he took almost personal offense at the existence of poverty; it was an affront to his sense of self, and, by implication, to ours as a nation. If President Obama sees it that way, let him say so, and plainly.”

Speechwriter, do you agree with the thrust of Shesol’s argument?

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