Clinton Puts Poverty Back in the Spotlight

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks on day two of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The Democrats have given so much attention to the plight of the middle class at the convention this week, you’d almost think no one in America is poor. Then Bill Clinton took the stage. As he started his speech last night, delegates were still waving blue-and-white signs that said, “A Stronger Middle Class.” The former president spent a lot of time talking about middle-income Americans—I counted nine specific “middle class” references in his speech—but Clinton also made the case that Democrats should provide more help for the poor, and that even those with means should care.

“We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly share prosperity,” he said early in the speech. Defending Obama administration policies that benefit poor Americans, Clinton provided a sharp alternative to the way Republicans have framed the election: as a choice between the party for doers (them) and a party for takers (the Democrats).

He tried to dispel Republican talking points that Obama has been dismantling welfare-to-work programs and letting more people live endlessly on the government dole. Clinton said the waivers Obama granted certain states would require more people to transfer to work—not fewer, as Republicans had claimed. “Now, did I make myself clear?” Clinton said. “The requirement was for more work, not less.”

Clinton was the first podium speaker to talk in depth about Medicaid, as opposed to Medicare. Where Medicare provides health care for older Americans, Medicaid is specifically for children from poor families and some low-income adults, such as those who are pregnant or have disabilities. The idea is to help people whose situations are generally beyond their control. Clinton said Republican cuts to Medicare would “really hurt a lot of poor kids” and also tried to broaden his appeal by explaining that two-thirds of Medicaid goes to helping seniors afford nursing homes. As Matt Yglesias wrote in Slate this morning: “Medicaid is where the rubber hits the road” in terms of showing differences between the two parties.

Clinton also talked about the Republicans’ proposed budget cuts to such programs as Pell Grants and early childhood education, which he framed as helping “to empower middle-class families and help poor kids.” Note that last phrase—“middle-class families and help poor kids”—which deftly avoided the politically poisonous image of helping able-bodied adults mooch off the government.

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