By
Melissa Harris Perry
updated 2/18/2013 4:50:31 PM ET 2013-02-18T21:50:31

As President Obama continues to travel the country touting his State of the Union goals, there’s one word we keep hearing from him that didn’t get quite as much attention last term: “poverty.”

As President Obama continues to travel the country touting his State of the Union goals, there is one word we keep hearing from him that didn’t get quite as much attention last term: poverty.

In fact, Obama mentioned the word “poverty” four times during Tuesday’s address. That’s more than in all of his other State of the Union addresses combined.

“Today, a family with two kids that works hard and relies on a minimum wage salary still lives below the poverty line,” he said in Chicago on Friday. “That’s wrong and we should fix it. Cities like Chicago are ringed with former factory towns that never came back all the way from plants packing up. There are pockets of poverty where young adults are still looking for their first job.”

In addition to urging a higher minimum wage and expanding pre-kindergarten education, the Obama administration plans to unveil a program they’re calling “Ladders to Opportunity.” This program will target 20 of the poorest communities in America, aimed at working with local leaders on eliminating red tape around education, housing, and public safety, while giving tax breaks to businesses who hire workers in these neighborhoods.

“It’s a topic that had been conspicuously absent from most presidential rhetoric,” said host Melissa Harris-Perry on Saturday.

“This is clearly a second-term agenda item,” Columbia professor Dorian Warren said during the panel. “You didn’t hear poverty in the first term that much at all.”

Republican consultant Katon Dawson offered a reason why the president is being more vocal about poverty. “He doesn’t have to get re-elected again,” he said. “It was a base election. He is a marvelous politician, obviously…he has the luxury now, having been re-elected, to talk about things that matter to the base that elected him.”

About 49.7 million Americans (15% of the population) and 16.1 million children (21.9% of the population) are living in poverty, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers are even worse for minority children — 37.4% of African American kids, 34.1% of Latinos, 12.5% of white kids are under the poverty line.

Overall, the number of poor Americans has hit record highs in recent years.

Senior White House Adviser Valerie Jarrett insisted in an interview with Harris-Perry that Obama’s recent focus on poverty is a “natural progression.”

“The president has always been concerned with the poor,” she said. “It began as he was a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, working with people who lost when the steel mills closed, so this has been something that he’s cared about. And his message throughout his time in politics has been about making sure we’re inclusive, that this is a land of opportunity and equality.”

“Guess what Latinos care about when you look at public opinion polls,” said Warren. “Education. The economy. After, immigration, right? They care a lot about those issues. So he’s laying a trap for the Republican Party.”

“How could you have a conscience and not care about that?” asked Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author. “I think this is an issue for all Americans, of all ages, and of all wealth levels.”

Video: Poverty a new item on Obama’s agenda

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