Telana Starks was watching her niece play in a sandbox Monday afternoon in Lafayette Park when I asked if she was following the presidential campaign. She said she hadn't really been paying any attention, which was interesting because the candidates haven't been paying any attention to her either.
Starks makes about $700 a month as a home healthcare provider and would like to find time for another job and money for college, but she's busy looking after family who need her help.
Kathleen O'Malley, whose granddaughter was playing with Starks' niece, said she's working as a dog walker to supplement her Social Security check.
"I don't consider myself middle class," O'Malley said. "I consider myself at the poverty line."
Too bad for her, and for the one in six U.S. residents who live in poverty. If you've been following the presidential campaign, you might easily have gotten the impression that the poor no longer exist. The word "poverty" was mentioned once in the first debate between President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney. Together, the two candidates made 29 references to the middle class. And in Tuesday's debate, I lost count after Romney reeled off more than half-a-dozen references in a single answer.
In the vice presidential debate, the word "poverty" got one mention. But Vice President Joe Biden and GOP challenger Paul Ryan dutifully followed their leaders, with 33 references to the middle class.
Congratulations, middle class. You're on the radar screen as never before, no doubt because the candidates believe the key to victory is to woo those of you who might still be undecided.
In the first debate Obama said he believed "we do best when the middle class is doing well." Romney said then and again on Tuesday that the middle class was being crushed. Ryan touted a five-point plan for a stronger middle class, and Biden said "my whole life has been devoted" to — anyone care to take a wild guess?
"Look at my record," Biden went on. "It's been all about the middle class."
Does he really want to admit to that? There's strong evidence suggesting public policy has been rigged to stick it to the middle class, with a rulebook that has led to a greater concentration of wealth at the very top. But at least the middle class has advocates for the moment, with both candidates poised to give them a tax cut.
At Heart of Los Angeles, a nonprofit after-school enrichment program, I struck up a conversation with Veronica Matos, who had a fair question: Who exactly is in this middle class the candidates keep talking about?
"I'm just Joe Blow citizen, but I don't see any middle class in L.A.," she said, perhaps exaggerating a bit.
As director of parent and community outreach, Matos sees families who go hungry and struggle with practically every basic necessity.
"Right now I'm trying to help a family of five, and the dad makes $21,000 a year."
Matos seems to understand Obama's reasons, though, in not speaking up more about such families in the middle of a campaign. He runs the risk of being called a socialist.
"That's what a socialist is now. Someone trying to help a fellow human being."
It has not escaped the notice of Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who runs the Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, that people who live in poverty are practically off the radar screen despite the growing divide among rich and poor. Although, as Harris-Dawson noted, Obama did make reference in the first debate to providing "ladders of opportunity" for those trying to get into the middle class.
Harris-Dawson said the lack of attention to the poor was most striking during the vice presidential debate in Kentucky.
"You're in the Appalachians!" he said.
But he had an interesting take on the scant references to those clinging to the bottom rungs.
"In some sense, that's an improvement," Harris-Dawson said. "In races in the recent past, poor people have been a topic — they're taking all your money, and you need to cut them off."
Romney found himself trespassing in that neighborhood last month, with the release of a video showing him telling wealthy donors that 47% of all Americans pay no income taxes and "believe they are victims" entitled to a free ride. Harsh words from a multimillionaire who stockpiles money overseas and pays about 14% in taxes, but Romney has since refrained from clubbing the multitudes less fortunate than himself. And Ryan, in his debate, said his ticket wants to "get people out of poverty" and into, of course, the middle class.
Obama and Romney have clearly made a calculated risk in saying little about the poor for fear of driving away middle-class voters. But will it backfire, with low-income people not turning out to vote or voting against the candidate they see as most hostile to the poor?
Harris-Dawson thinks not. He thinks Obama still has an advantage with the working poor, because they approve of Obamacare and believe Obama is more apt to support public education and community colleges in poor communities.
And yet, said Harris-Dawson, many poor people have an interesting thing in common.
They don't consider themselves poor.
"We actually came up with a list of people on welfare and went door-to-door, and do you know what? The majority of people said they were not poor," said Harris-Dawson, who thinks the candidates may be aware of this phenomenon.
He said people who were out of work framed it as a temporary condition related to the distressed economy or some other factor.
"Being poor has been so demonized. Being poor means being on 'Jerry Springer.' That's what it means nowadays, and who wants to be on 'Jerry Springer?'"
Yes, and it means that in 2012, with 46 million people living in poverty — 16 million of them children — candidates for president of the United States seem to think it won't matter if they pretend you don't exist.