CINCINNATI — From the stoop of his rented home amid row houses in one of Ohio’s poorest counties, Neil Howell wondered aloud if anyone could truly make a difference in the lives of families like his. Does it matter who wins the White House?
As President Obama and Mitt Romney crisscross Ohio this month, Howell has watched in disappointment the two tangling over foreign affairs, the economy, and taxes on the middle class and the rich. There’s been scant talk, he said, about improving the lives of America’s poor.
“I don’t expect them to help me personally,” Howell, 42, said from his home, after a 90-minute bus ride home from work as a janitor. “I just don’t think either one’s going to do all that much.”
His wife, Debbie, unemployed for four years, said: “When it comes to people like us, we get pushed to the side.”
Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, has one of the state’s highest rates of poverty with nearly one person in five below the federal threshold. It is mostly white, mostly conservative, and widely considered a bellwether in the presidential election.
Four years ago, Obama beat Senator John McCain by 7 percentage points, the first Democrat to carry the county since President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. If the president, who has visited Ohio 15 times, can win the county again, that could go a long way toward securing this large tossup state. Romney, who has visited Hamilton County four times this year and spent much of last week in Ohio, is counting on building momentum from his strong performance in the first debate for a comeback win here.
No Republican has won the White House without winning the Buckeye State.
In a series of interviews with families near or below the poverty line in the county, most echo the perspectives of the Howells. Little the candidates say resonates with them, and little in their ads reflects their lives. And not enough has been made on the trail over the nation flirting with poverty rates unseen since the mid-1960s.
It’s no surprise the working-class poor and jobless feel alienated, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati. “The lower your income, the more jaded you tend to be about politics.”
Some of it could be justified, Miller said. “When I hear the candidates talk, I don’t really hear them talking about poverty, either,” he said. “They don’t communicate that they really understand or empathize with the positions that low-income Americans are in.”
In the village of Cleves, where many families live in poverty near Indiana, Suzanne Haas got her dinner of homemade lasagna recently at a local church, a free meal she counts on to stretch her $700 monthly disability check from the government.
“I wish I could go back to work and earn an income,” said Haas, 54. If there’s anything to blame for her predicament, it’s the pain from a bad back that forced her to give up her waitressing job years ago. A lifelong Republican, she is leaning toward voting for Obama even though he’s “been a lot of talk and not a lot of action.”
As for Romney, “I haven’t heard what he’s about, and what he’s going to address,” she said. “All he talks about is taking things away.”
She worries about cuts to food stamps and Medicaid and Social Security and isn’t sure whom to believe. She agrees with Romney that personal responsibility can overcome adversity, but she also knows that some, like her, need help.
Sara Dole, 22, a divorced mother of four, ages 2 to 7, did her best to absorb what she said were complicated issues in the debate before giving up in frustration. “They both seemed inclined to helping the middle, which is good, but how about us in the lower end?” said Dole, who has a degree as a medical technician but can work only limited hours because of scoliosis, a spinal defect.
The Howells watched the presidential debate on a television equipped with a rabbit-ears antenna. Afterward, they expressed frustration over the president’s inability to deliver on his promises from four years ago, including his vow to raise the country’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour. That would lift a family of three just above the poverty threshold of $19,090. The Howells, with their 15-year-old daughter the only one of their three children still at home, earn slightly more than that.
Neil Howell voiced concern that Romney doesn’t have a plan to alleviate the country’s poverty, which now encompasses a record 46 million Americans. “He says a lot, but I still don’t know what his plan is,” he said.
He voted for Bush twice, but couldn’t bring himself to vote for either Obama or Senator John McCain four years ago. This time, he remains undecided.
Romney has so far offered a trickle-down approach: easing regulatory and tax burdens on job creators to spur the economy and lift the entire spectrum of wage earners.
“Middle class and working class families are looking for a hand up, not a handout,” said Christopher Maloney, Romney’s spokesman in Ohio.
Romney, however, has had trouble connecting with the working class, many of whom may perceive him as a well-to-do businessman who at times seems awkward around voters.
That perception deepened when a videotape surfaced last month showing Romney at a private fund-raiser referring to Obama’s supporters as the 47 percent “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Romney went on: “My job is not to worry about these people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
The comment was galling to Debbie Howell. She said that when Obama had a chance in the first debate to challenge Romney on his comment, the president didn’t.
Most Americans, especially those with lower incomes, took a dim view of Romney’s assertions. According to a poll released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of people making less than $30,000 a year held a negative view, while 52 percent of those making more than $75,000 did.
Romney acknowledged last week that he had made a gaffe. “I said something that’s just completely wrong,” he told Fox News.