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On Fiscal Cliff, Progressives Issue Poverty Plea

Amid talks about taxes slated to rise on “middle-income folks” and looming spending cuts on the defense sector, a group of liberal Democrats is urging Congressional leaders to focus on “the most vulnerable Americans.”

“Cuts should not increase poverty in America or put children and families at greater risk of falling through the cracks,” said a letter organized by the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus and set to be released today.

The new push, coming just over a week after the conservative Republican Study Committee held a press conference alongside anti-poverty activists, marks a mini-boomlet of national discussion about poverty in the midst of a presidential campaign that has overwhelmingly focused on the middle class.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) sought to use the letter, which so far has 60 signatures, to contrast the two parties’ approaches on poverty.

“It is simply unfathomable that Paul Ryan’s budget – which he claims is inspired by his Judeo-Christian faith – asks the most sacrifice from those with the least,” Honda said in a statement. “That is why I’ll be fighting tooth and nail against Republican Social Darwinism that would increase the number of Americans living in poverty and cripple our economy.”

Democrats, who generally advocate more direct intervention by the federal government to assist individuals in poverty, have traditionally spoken about the poor with more fluency than Republicans, many of whom believe charity, not government, is the proper venue for assisting the needy.

But in the Barack Obama presidency, several factors have made the topic more sensitive politically.

First, although poverty affects African-Americans and Hispanics far more severely than whites, according to the National Poverty Center, Obama’s status as the first black president has led to some rhetorical caution by their natural champions in Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“I have attempted as the chair during his first term to walk between the raindrops,” CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.) told Roll Call in June []. “We want to do everything we can do to be supportive of the president. And at the same time, Members will say, we have been publicly critical of every president since Nixon and we damage our authenticity when we are silent on issues that our constituents have historically seen us challenge.”

Secondly, and somewhat ironically, the dismal economy has pushed poverty from the larger political discussion, as both parties focus on the economic concerns of the middle class. “I’m not concerned about the very poor – we have a safety net there,” GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in February, to criticism.

Last week, when an old speech of Obama’s turned up recently in which he said, “I actually believe in redistribution” of wealth, Democratic politicians ran from that rhetoric, if not the concept.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said redistributing wealth is “absolutely not” a purpose of government. “I don’t know that any Democrat believes that the redistribution of wealth is the end of government. It is not,” he added.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a leading progressive Member, said in an interview: “I don’t think it’s as simplistic as taking from some to give to another. I think it is as complicated as everybody paying their fair share,” which would create more “opportunity” for all.

“I know one thing: That poverty is not even being discussed in this campaign, by either party,” anti-poverty activist Bob Woodson said at the RSC event.

Even the Out of Poverty Caucus letter cites the middle class and deficit reduction in its appeal to help the poor.

“Further, getting many struggling Americans into good paying jobs and supporting them along this journey, adds more to the ranks of a prosperous middle class. This effort, in itself, contributes to deficit reduction and a stronger American economy in the long run,” the letter says.

The Out of Poverty Caucus letter offers more specifics than Members such as Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) offered at the RSC event. For instance, it points to past efforts in the 1980s to expand Medicaid and the earned income tax credit, both of which benefit the poor.

But it contains its share of vagueness, referring broadly to “fully funding education” and “economic development programs” without specifiying what that entails.

The letter also argues “savings from reductions in forces in Afghanistan” can help pay for those programs, but economists have noted that both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were financed by deficit spending, meaning no savings from them exist to pay for other priorities.