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America's hidden issue of poverty

WBUR, Boston's fine public radio station, has been flogging this promotion: 16 million poor kids, through federal aid, get nutritious breakfasts and lunches throughout the school year. But now it's summer, and school's out. So send WBUR a hundred bucks, and $25 of it will go to a local food bank that feeds kids while the federal money shuts down.

Does this strike you as just a little off? By all means, send WBUR a check. But shouldn't the news staff, as opposed to the development staff, be running with this story? What Scrooge forgot that kids eat in the summer? Where is the Bush administration on this? Why are there so many hungry children, anyway?

By making this appeal part of its fund-raising pitch, complete with heart-rending interviews with adorable kids, WBUR subtly buys into the premise that these children require charity rather than decent public policy anchored in a robust politics. It adds to the depoliticizing of issues that should be part of politics.

And that's the larger story of our dwindling democracy. This election year, once again, issues of social class are pretty much off the table.

The great hidden issue in America is the scandal that tens of millions of Americans who work full time -- often more than full time -- barely get by and can't get ahead, while CEOs get zillions. The blue-collar middle class jobs are vanishing; what's taking their place are retail and service jobs that top out at $10 an hour or less. You can't live decently on that.

For chapter and verse, read Barbara Ehrenreich's modern classic, "Nickeled and Dimed." She recounts trying to survive on take-home pay of about $1,200 a month when rent consumes $800. It can't be done. Many of her co-workers, clinging to middle-class work ethic values, live in their cars.

Bernie Sanders, the lefty Vermont congressman, recently told me something interesting. He gets a lot of his votes not from the Birkenstock crowd but from lower income, blue-collar men -- the very voters many Democrats consider hopelessly lost to NASCAR, Limbaugh, flag-waving, and fundamentalism.

Why do they support a militant like Sanders? Because he engages their pocketbook issues -- fighting for ground rules that enable working people to make a decent living, get good health care, and live in affordable housing. "I'm not a liberal," says Sanders. "I'm a progressive."

Progressive politics is not about charity and soup kitchens. It's about power, and putting issues considered almost unspeakable in polite company back into the national conversation.

The people Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed for "Nickeled and Dimed" have pretty much given up on politics -- because politics has given up on them. Few big-league politicians are talking about subjects that could make a real difference in their lives, like maybe a $12 minimum wage or universal health insurance.

The bipartisan elite has convinced itself that the main challenge for the next generation is reducing the federal deficit. That's what passes for courage in Beltway Washington, as it has for two decades. No wonder voters are tuning out.

Let me amend that. Potentially progressive voters like those Sanders supporters tune out. Wall Street voters are entirely tuned in, to an insider debate between those who would cut taxes and not worry about deficits (Bush) and those who would cut deficits and give up on all but token social investment (the fiscal conservatives advising Kerry). Some debate.

Lately, Washington sages have been promoting a new and entirely misleading conceit about what ails American politics -- polarization: Pundit John Tierney wrote, "It's not voters but the political elite of both parties who have become more narrow minded and polarized." Columnist David Brooks sniffed, "You can't understand the current bitter polarization without appreciating how it is inflamed or even driven by the civil war within the educated class."

To read these guys, you'd think Republican leaders were charging to the right and Democrats to the left. But the Democratic Party has become steadily more centrist, especially on pocketbook issues, as the GOP has become more radical. By making the problem seem like a symmetrical polarization, these right-wing pundits give a free pass to both Bush's plain extremism and the Democrats' capture.

A vibrant politics has to be about making sure that capitalism gives ordinary people a fair shake. Otherwise regular people turn to spectacle rather than democracy, politics becomes a sport for the elite, and the best we can hope for is charity.

So the problem, with all due respect to WBUR, isn't that school is out. It's that class is out.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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