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Campaign offers little on how to aid the poor Obama, McCain don't talk of urgency, advocates say

Barack Obama grew up in a middle-class household. Abandoned by his father as a boy, he was raised by his grandparents and a single mother who sometimes needed food stamps to feed her children.

John McCain grew up in a military family. His father and grandfather were both distinguished four-star admirals in the Navy.

Sens. Obama, a Democrat, and McCain, a Republican, both promise that if they are elected president, they will make the fight against poverty in Buffalo and other cities a high priority.

But they rarely talk about the poor in debates, interviews or public appearances as they stump for votes throughout the country.

Obama's campaign staff said he plans to expand many federal anti-poverty programs, such as the Head Start early education program, and give more tax breaks to millions of poor families.

McCain's organization said he vows to cut government costs and improve conditions for economic growth, an approach that McCain believes would create new jobs and help all Americans, including the poor.

In Buffalo, statistically the third-poorest city in the nation, Sister Sharon Goodremote, Marlies A. Wesolowski and Lookesha Tyler are closely watching the campaign for signs that the candidates will step forward and lead a national effort to do something significant to alleviate poverty.

"I'd like to see the next president put forward a Marshall Plan to eradicate poverty," said Wesolowski, executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center on Broadway. "That's what it's going to take -- an all-out effort led by the president and the federal government."
Wesolowski and Goodremote, public policy coordinator for Catholic Charities, work in agencies that help Buffalo's poor. Tyler is a working single mother, raising three children and barely scraping by financially.

All three are upset that poverty -- affecting more than one in 10 Americans -- is rarely spoken about on the presidential campaign trail.

Poverty never came up during any of the three televised debates between Obama and McCain or in the Oct. 2 debate between vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

"They talked about the economy and the middle class, but not one question, not one answer, dealt with the issue of poor people," Goodremote said. "The government says 37 million people live below the poverty level. That is a huge section of our population that doesn't even seem to be part of the discussion in this campaign."

Similar observations came from Allison K. Duwe, executive director of the Buffalo Coalition for Economic Justice.

"The candidates know who votes, and they know who writes the checks to political campaigns," Duwe said. "That's why we've been out registering voters in the low-income neighborhoods."

According to the most recent census data, released in August, Detroit is the nation's poorest city, followed by Cleveland and Buffalo. The data shows that 28.7 percent of Buffalo residents live below the poverty level, and that includes nearly 43 percent of the city's children.

"In our view, poverty is the biggest single problem facing Buffalo," said Duwe, whose organization is made up of labor, church and community groups seeking better opportunities for the working poor. "It's troublesome that we don't hear more discussion about it."

Wesolowski said the news media share responsibility for the fact that tens of millions of poor people are largely being ignored in the presidential race.

The ONE organization, co-founded by Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, said that it sent an Internet petition signed by 122,000 people to moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC, asking him to pose one question about poverty during the Oct. 7 debate. Brokaw did not raise any questions about poverty.

Other anti-poverty groups, including Every Child Matters, made similar unsuccessful efforts with moderators of the other debates.

"It was very disheartening to watch the town hall debate and not hear one person from the audience, or even the moderator, even bring up this issue," Wesolowski said. "It's sickening to me."

While local efforts to address poverty are important, experts say the president sets the tone on issues of vital interest to the poor, including education and health care funding.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based organization seeking improvements in programs for poor children, Bill Clinton, as president, helped the poor in many ways, including a huge increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit.

President Bush and his father, the first President George Bush, did not make it a priority to help the poor, the group said.

"Under President Clinton, the number of poor children in the U.S. hit its lowest number since 1980," said Catherine Crato, a Buffalo native who works as an economist for the defense fund. "Under George W. Bush, the numbers of poor rose back up again, even during a six-year period of economic expansion for most Americans. The Bush administration clearly has not made a priority of helping poor children and families."

Tyler, 31, and Candida Davis, 27, are two of the thousands of Buffalo residents who view the presidential campaign from below the poverty line.

They are single working mothers whose children are enrolled in the Holy Innocents Child Care Center, which is run by Catholic Charities.

The women struggle from paycheck to paycheck. Both are registered voters -- Democrats -- and both intend to vote in the presidential election.

Tyler makes $8 an hour as a city school bus aide. She raises three children in a house on Sherman Street.

"We hear gunfire at least once a week," she laments.

She also suffers from multiple sclerosis, which causes severe pain in her legs in cold weather and makes her job more difficult.

"When I hear middle-class people complain about their problems, I think, 'Believe me, it's even worse for the people below you,' " Tyler said. "Everything goes up but my paycheck. When it comes time to pay my bills, I always have to put one aside, leave it for the next month."

>Distrustful of politicians

Tyler said it disturbs her that the candidates seem to be saying so little about their plans to help the poor.

"It seems like we're being totally ignored," she said.

In Tyler's view, McCain and Bush seem to show no interest in the plight of poor people. She is excited that Obama has said he will seek an increase in the minimum wage, but she isn't completely sold on the Democrat, either.

"Obama is saying some good things, but I've seen so many other politicians make promises and not deliver on the promises," she said. "I'm worried that he won't, either."

Davis, who has a 3-year-old daughter, works part time for an insurance company and is also a full-time student at Erie Community College.

She hopes to become a psychologist one day and is an unabashed supporter of Obama. Davis follows the presidential race closely.

"I think Obama addresses the needs of people who are low-income more than McCain does," Davis said. "I feel like Obama does care. He came from a single-parent household, from humble beginnings. I relate better to him than a man who owns seven houses."

Rosa A. Gibson, executive director of the Community Action Information Center, has worked for decades to help poor people in Buffalo. She talks every day with poor families who come to the food pantry that her group runs on Wohlers Avenue.

The outspoken 77-year-old Gibson has her own take on the election. She doesn't trust either candidate to help the poor.

"I've been dealing with politicians for so long. I have been let down so many times, I don't believe anything any of them tell me," Gibson said. "Don't just tell me what you're going to do. Show me."

>Different perspectives

Any campaign discussion of poverty has been greatly overshadowed by the debate over the Wall Street meltdown and its effect on middle-class families, but each of the major candidates says he has a game plan that would help poor families.

The Buffalo News sent a list of 12 questions on issues affecting the poor to both the Obama and McCain campaigns.

The News also asked if the candidates for president and vice president would give even a brief interview on the topic of poverty. Both the Republicans and Democrats turned down that request.

In response to The News' questions, Obama's campaign outlined a poverty plan that would increase benefits under the Earned Income Tax Credit for 9 million poor Americans, quadruple the number of children eligible for the Early Head Start program and guarantee health coverage for every child.

The Illinois senator pledged to increase the federal minimum wage, which is currently $6.55 an hour, to $9.50 by 2011. He also wants to create a Green Jobs Corps that would provide "disengaged youth" training and jobs in the field of clean energy technology.

Obama has been talking on the campaign trail about the issues that are important to people living in poverty, said Blake Zeff, a spokesman for the Obama campaign.

"Obama's health care, education and job-training investments will provide new hope and opportunities to neglected communities," Zeff said. "Tackling chronic poverty in this country requires us to strengthen economic opportunities for low-income families and invest in programs that work, while developing new ideas to reduce poverty."

How would Obama find the money to pay for such initiatives?

His staff estimates that the initiatives would cost $6 billion a year and would be funded through a plan to cut $200 billion a year in "wasteful and inefficient" government spending. They said money also would be saved when Obama would begin drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

In response to the same set of questions, McCain's staff offered no plans to boost spending on any government anti-poverty programs but noted that the Arizona senator has promised to make the fight against poverty a "high priority."

McCain's goal is to work with businesses to create new jobs, financial stability and economic growth, all of which will improve opportunities for poor Americans, said Russell C. Gugino, Western New York coordinator of the McCain campaign.

"Obama believes in the classic liberal redistribution-of-income model," Gugino said. "Look at the myriad of social programs that we're spending billions on to cure poverty. . . . It's not working."

Gugino said McCain advocates creating "enterprise zones" to encourage business development in struggling neighborhoods in Buffalo and other cities.

Professor Edgar K. Browning of Texas A&M University is an economist and author who supports McCain. He contends that Obama's policies would amount to throwing billions of dollars at a problem that cannot be solved with money.

According to Browning, federal, state and local governments already spend a combined $1 trillion a year on programs to help the poor, and still, the number of people in poverty increases.

Browning said the federal government's war on poverty -- and not the Iraq War -- is America's most costly failure.

In an interview, Browning said he believes that both candidates are sincere about wanting to help the poor but that the two have radically different approaches.

"If you're happy with making [the poor] more dependent on government, that's what Obama will do," Browning said. "McCain has few, if any, proposals that would directly affect poverty . . . In the long run, I think McCain's policies will be more conducive to economic growth than Obama's."

The Rev. Richard Allen Stenhouse, pastor of Buffalo's oldest black church, disagrees. He said he plans to vote for Obama because he thinks Obama will improve the economy for all, including the poor.

"After eight years with the Republicans, it's time for a change in philosophy about using our financial resources," said Stenhouse, of Bethel AME Church on Michigan Avenue. "The Iraq War is draining money away from the humanitarian programs that help students and help the poor in this country."

>'Disappointed with both'

Democrats argue that they have a record of making strides in the fight against poverty over the last two decades, while Republicans do not.

From 1988 to 1992, during the Republican administration of the first President George Bush, census figures show the number of Americans in poverty rose by 6.3 million.

During the eight-year administration of Clinton, a Democrat, that followed, the number of Americans in poverty decreased by 6.4 million.

But after George W. Bush became president almost eight years ago and the Republicans returned to power, the number of people in poverty rose once again, this time by 5.7 million, said Crato of the Children's Defense Fund.

The not-for-profit group does not make presidential endorsements, but it applauds Obama's proposals to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit and expand Head Start.

The group also compiles an annual "report card" in which it grades all senators and House members based on their voting record on issues of concern to children and the poor.

Obama received a high rating from the group -- 87 percent -- for his votes since he became a senator in 2005. The group gave McCain a much lower ranking of 28 percent for the years 1983 to the present.

Although the group says that it is nonpartisan, it does have ties to a very prominent Democrat. Before she became the nation's first lady and before she was elected as a senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton was chairwoman of the Children's Defense Fund's board for six years.

But the group points out that the poverty statistics it cites are taken from the government's own census data.

"I am a Democrat and a liberal. I think that, historically, Democrats have given more attention to the needs of the poor," Wesolowski said. "But in this campaign, I've been very disappointed with both candidates. Neither one seems to want to talk about this issue."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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