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Republicans Candidates Turn to the Issue of Poverty. But Does Anyone Care?

Republican presidential candidates are gathering this weekend to talk about something that has barely been uttered this election cycle: poverty.
Jaime Grimes hugs her daughter Olivia, 3, while standing in a food line with her in Lincoln, Nebraska. Brian Lehmann / for NBC News

Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina knows what it's like being poor, and he's using his political clout as a senator from an early primary state to ensure that the issues surrounding poverty are a part of the presidential campaign.

"It's a major part of my life's mission," Scott told NBC News in an interview this week.

With the holiday season just passing, Scott recalled moments in his life that stand out. He wanted a toy belt with a toy gun – one that imitated what was worn in western movies – but he woke up Christmas morning when he was seven or eight without his toy holster – or any toys.

Scott is channeling his concern for the poor by co-moderating a Republican presidential forum on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina called Expanding Opportunity with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Seven GOP presidential candidates - Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and John Kasich – will attend.

Still, such a forum faces significant challenges: The presidential primary has barely centered on policy and when it has, the subject is often about immigration or ISIS - even with one out of six Americans living in poverty.

Only Jeb Bush has formulated how he would address the issue of poverty. He released a plan ahead of the forum on Friday.

“Our goal is to start the conversation and hit the ignition switch,” Scott said. “And hopefully over the next two months it’s a conversation we’ll have in earnest.”

Perhaps poverty is absent as an issue because people living in poverty have much lower rates of voter participation. About 48 percent of people living below poverty level – families making less than $20,000 per year – voted in the last presidential election. Meanwhile, 80 percent of people whose family makes more than $150,000 per year voted in 2012.

Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute who has championed the issue of poverty among conservatives, said poor people have been forgotten in the political sphere.

“There’s been a major shift in how (politicians) see poor people. They have been deemed unnecessary – morally unnecessary,” Brooks, who is co-hosting the forum, said. “Poor people used to be the building blocks the American economy.”

Not only are low-income people more likely to not vote, when they do they tend to vote for Democrats.

With proposals that emulate supply-side economics, economic relief to the wealthy in order to benefit the entire economy, Republicans have become the party that is perceived to represent the wealthy. Brooks said that not only is supply-side economics not necessarily the answer, but that Republicans are losing an untapped voter market by not speaking to poor people.

“Republicans will recognize that we need millennials, we need women, we need Hispanics, we need African Americans, but haven’t realized that the fifth group we need (to win elections) is the poor,” Brooks said.

Steve Glickman, co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, another co-sponsor of the forum, said that even though poverty hasn’t been high on the presidential agenda, it has been an undertone of the campaign.

“One of the sub currents of the entire presidential primary season has been this deep anxiety of Americans that have led to the attractiveness of populism,” he said, adding that the problem is that “it hasn’t lent them to the discussion that is needed.”

Instead that fear has culminated in support for Donald Trump, a wealthy real estate mogul who brags about his wealth and whose rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, naysayers, the media and women feeds people’s fear.

Trump, however, won’t be at the event. Even though he’s holding a rally in Columbia the night before, Trump is running a campaign on his own terms and has decided that he won’t sit down and answer policy questions about inequality and poverty.

Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Republican frontrunner, won’t attend either. Instead he’ll be campaigning in Iowa, a state he hopes to win.

With so much attention paid to Trump, policy prescriptions have been buried underneath the bluster with most candidates. Carly Fiorina even said that plans aren’t necessary because anyone can write a plan. Only Donald Trump has released fewer policy plans than Fiorina, unveiling a total of five compared to the more than 30 that Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who is running a more traditional campaign, has unveiled.

Marianna Sotomayor / NBC News

Mariana Chilton, the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University, said leadership must come from the president on the issue that is mostly ignored.

“We would like every person who is running for president to have some kind of vision for how they’re going to end hunger in America,” Chilton said.