In this election year, when the nation is debating its obligations to those in economic distress, the poor have two faces.
One belongs to some of the poor people Grasela Amador, a 54-year-old Ohio woman, sees at a food bank where she works. "A lot of people do take advantage of it [assistance programs] and that ain't right," she said, referring to those who have made welfare a way of life. She believes while government programs should exist to help people in need, they should be temporary,
The other belongs to people like Sharon Taylor, a 38-year-old Pittsburgh mother of four who is going to school and working part-time at Target. "Living in poverty is not something that has to stay that way," she says. "If you put enough work and effort into it, you can achieve a higher goal. Being middle class is something I believe I can reach if I work hard and stay on a straight path."
The tension between the deserving and undeserving poor -- along with the difficulty of defining who they are and the politically charged task of differentiating between them -- is part of the tension between the two parties as they position themselves for a bruising presidential election campaign. The contest once again raises urgent questions about personal responsibility and government responsibility, about independence and community, and about what obligations individuals have for their economic circumstances and what obligations the rest of us have to ameliorate their distress.
The election-year dustup over the poor began this winter.
The day after his convincing victory in the Florida Republican primary, former GOP Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts told CNN that as a presidential candidate, "I'm not concerned about the very poor, because we have a safety net, and if it needs repair, I'll fix it."
Mr. Romney's remarks sent the liberal blogosphere into overdrive, but the reaction from other candidates was muted.
President Barack Obama said that his sense of obligation to help the poor and others who are suffering had been shaped by his religious values, and suggested that eliminating tax breaks for the rich was a way of carrying out that obligation. Former Sen. Rick Santorum proclaimed, "I care about 100 percent of America," but said nothing specific about the problems of the poor or how he would address them.
It was one of the few times poverty had been mentioned at all in a presidential contest dominated by the deficit, taxes, health care and personal ethics, and it isn't likely to become a continuing issue.
Why is that?
The cynical view is that poor people don't vote, or don't vote enough.
In the 2010 midterm elections, only 40 percent of those who earned less than $50,000 a year turned out to cast ballots, compared with 60 percent of those who earned more than $75,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau.
Another reason presidential candidates may avoid discussion of poverty, though, is the moral ambivalence we feel toward poor people, shaped by the old notion that there are "deserving" and "undeserving" people in that group.
In the early 1700s, University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Katz said, people simply talked about the "able-bodied" and "impotent" poor -- those who physically could work, and those who couldn't.
But starting in the late 1700s in Great Britain and the United States, Mr. Katz said, those distinctions became "moralized" into those who merited help and those who didn't.
"The problem is that that line between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor is so fuzzy, it never really works very well," he said, "and I think when the line gets moralized, it becomes easier to treat the very poor meanly."
Still, the concept seems to have shaped much of the rhetoric that has accompanied programs aimed at low-income families.
Under Republican President George H.W. Bush, the federal government actually expanded its most effective anti-poverty program -- the Earned Income Tax Credit -- because those tax benefits went only to those who were in the labor force.
And Democratic President Bill Clinton was able to persuade Congress to replace the controversial Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with the much more limited Temporary Assistance to Needy Families by saying that its focus on education, training and child care for single mothers would help them "break the cycle of dependency."
No matter what rhetoric is used about poverty, though, the numbers make it clear that the problem is getting worse.
The nation's official poverty rate climbed to 15.1 percent in 2010, the most recent year available, affecting 46.2 million Americans. And the new Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account government benefits and nondiscretionary expenses, puts the figure even higher, at 16 percent, adding nearly 3 million more people to the ranks of the poor.
Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that the number of children living in high-poverty areas had increased from 6.3 million in 2000 to 7.9 million this year.
In addition, a 2010 Pew Research Center study showed that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as lower class climbed from 25 to 29 percent between 2008 and 2010.
Of those making less than $30,000 a year who still had jobs, more than half said they had suffered a reduction in work hours or a pay cut, or had been forced to take unpaid leave.
And even though the recession officially ended in 2009, the number of Americans getting food stamps has continued to climb, from about 35 million in the spring of 2009 to nearly 46 million in August.
Of course, the current economic slump also has hurt many middle-class people, and even many wealthy Americans have seen their income plummet along with the stock market.
The bigger question is what has happened to the poor in America over the past several decades.
The answer, says University of Arizona economist Lane Kenworthy, is that the poor have stayed poor, at least in America, and the stubborn persistence of the problem, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, may be one more reason candidates have avoided the issue.
In his 2011 book, "Progress for the Poor," Mr. Kenworthy noted that the U.S. economy nearly doubled in size from 1979 to 2007. During that period, the poorest quarter of Americans did improve their lot in growth periods, but they were hit so hard during three major recessions in those decades that it wiped out any gains they had made.
"The problem is not that economic growth has failed to help the poor," he wrote. "It has indeed helped. But recessions since the 1970s have been very rough on America's poor, and the benefits of growth have not been sufficient to offset the damage."
And that wasn't just the story in the United States. In most developed nations that Mr. Kenworthy analyzed, wages for the poorest 10 percent of the population stayed flat or even fell in real dollars during that period.
Household incomes for those at the bottom of the economy went up only in nations that had generous government transfer programs, such as Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and Finland, he found. In the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, by contrast, government aid to the poorest 10 percent stayed almost flat in constant dollars, and so did household income.
"There are some critics on the right who say there are in effect no poor people in rich countries today compared with the way people lived decades ago," he said, "but I don't really believe that. I think in a country where we have had pretty sustained economic growth over a long period of time, you want the overall standard of living to rise."
Have the more generous government benefits in some European nations created the risk of a permanent underclass?
Mr. Kenworthy said there is no evidence to support that, although there were particular moments in certain nations where that was a threat.
In the early 1980s in the Netherlands, for instance, 20 to 30 percent of the workforce was on disability, he said, because the benefits were so generous. And in Sweden in the late 1980s, sick leave pay was set so high that workers could actually earn more money during a sick day than they could at work. Both nations have since scaled back those programs.
Poverty has not been front and center in American political debate since the passage of the welfare reform act in 1996.
But a new book may have started to change that.
Conservative scholar Charles Murray, who created intense partisan conflict with "The Bell Curve," his 1994 book on inheritance and intelligence, has now touched a nerve with "Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010."
In it, he argues that there is a growing gap between highly educated, married, hardworking, affluent Americans and unmarried, less educated, chronically unemployed poorer Americans.
With one run of the printing presses, he has reignited the culture wars.
Correction/Clarification: (Published March 5, 2012) A chart in Sunday's editions had an incorrect number for the percentage of upper class households that feel their financial situation is better after the recession than it was before. The correct figure is 33 percent
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130. First Published March 4, 2012 5:00 AM