October 26, 2012; Source: Truthout

The nonprofit sector has often functioned as the first line of American response to the needs of the poor. That is true whether one’s notion of nonprofits is as the necessary and valued delivery mechanisms of government social safety net programs or as delivery mechanisms of the decent, compassionate reactions of the American public through charity and volunteerism. But it has been extraordinarily difficult to get this nation’s political leaders to recognize poverty as an issue warranting public discourse and debate.

Maybe the reluctance to speak about poverty stems from the negative characterizations of the poor that have stealthily been accepted by much of the American public as true. Writing for Truthout, Jeff Nall dissects and debunks some of the stereotypes that are, remarkably, widely accepted in our society:

  1. “The Bootstrap Myth” is the notion that if you work hard enough, you won’t be poor, but if you are poor, it means that you “lack the will, integrity or intelligence to succeed.”
  2. There is also the idea that poor people are unemployed. If true, getting people jobs would solve poverty. But the fact is that sizeable proportions of the poor and of people on food stamps do have job earnings, but work in jobs that provide poverty-level wages.
  3. Another myth is that poor people refuse to work, as in the well-known charge from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that “the 47 percent,” as paraphrased by Nall, are “demanding government solve all of their problems and provide for their every need.”
  4. Another fallacy is the belief that poverty means that you must be African American, but more than one-third of head-of-households receiving food stamps are white.
  5. Then there is the belief that “education necessarily remedies poverty,” “that a lack of education is the root of poverty, and that education is the answer to poor people’s plight,” which Nall suggests is a “fallacious oversimplification that distorts reality.”

In all of these cases, Nall whacks Republicans ranging from Romney to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for perpetuating these myths. He only includes President Barack Obama in one line, as a supporter of the education myth, but in reality, both presidential candidates have gone into reverse gear when it comes to dealing with the poor, either because they might more or less believe in these myths or because they don’t have the political bearings for challenging them.

Politicians of all stripes might disagree on how to address poverty, but nonprofits of all stripes know that they and the nation have to do so. This may be the nonprofit sector’s biggest post-election messaging challenge. It’s not about getting politicians to say what they think of the charitable deduction. It’s not about getting politicians to offer facile “I (heart) nonprofit” bromides. It’s in coming to grips with the poverty that afflicts 47 million Americans.—Rick Cohen