It is looming as one of the greatest ironies of what is set to be the most commercial presidential election in US history - the poor have rarely been given such attention. From the 'compassionate conservatism' of Republican favourite George W. Bush to last week's pledge to end child poverty from Democrat contender Bill Bradley, the poor are being given more political consideration than at any time in the last 30 years. Welfare reform, a healthy budget surplus and the benefits of the country's longest peacetime period of economic growth - low unemployment and stable inflation - are allowing contenders the relative political freedom to talk tough on poverty. At the recent Iowa straw poll, Republican candidates, who not long ago would have been sneering about welfare abuse - a hangover of the Reagan years - were all talking about the underbelly of newly wealthy America. Certainly the evidence is undeniable, with homelessness and child poverty lingering problems in most big cities. Vast areas lack many amenities as the boom concentrates wealth in marketable districts. In New York, the latest statistics suggest poverty among the elderly is at near-record levels. A survey by the Community Service Society found 216,000, or 22 per cent, of New Yorkers aged 65 and over were living on or below the US poverty level - twice the national urban average. An estimated one in four senior citizens was malnourished. Mr Bradley, meanwhile, has focused on the young - repeating, in every stump speech, recent government figures showing 13.5 million American children are living in poverty. He pledged major tax breaks and a US$1 (HK$7.75) increase in the hourly minimum wage over two years, plus US$10 billion in federal spending. He promised 60,000 more teachers, after-hours classes for poor schools, and specifically vowed to pull three million children out of poverty in his first term and four million in his second if elected. The problems caused by some 45 million holding no medical insurance in one of the most expensive nations for health care would also be tackled. Demanding urgent efforts to eliminate child poverty within a decade, Mr Bradley described the plight of the poor as 'a slow-motion national disaster' during 'unparalleled prosperity'. 'I believe we have the wealth to eliminate child poverty as we know it,' he said. Many analysts suggested his speech outside a church in one of the tougher quarters of Brooklyn, New York, set something of a high-water mark for candidates of all shades. Mr Bush's 'compassionate' demands for economic and educational empowerment of the vast ranks of disenfranchised included the statement that 'there are no second-rate children in America'. His comments are widely perceived to have set the tone and the race is now on. Already, Mr Bradley's rival Democrat, Vice-President Al Gore, is struggling to catch up. Spokesmen have been quick to describe his promises as 'nothing new' and merely a new set of spending programmes, many of which President Bill Clinton has attempted. The child poverty figure has reduced from 15.3 million when Mr Clinton took power. Mr Gore, facing a greater fight for the Democratic nomination than was first thought, has opted for a more restrained demand to rein in wayward fathers who ignore family obligations. Social workers and poverty advocacy groups have yet to provide any ringing endorsements of any candidate and warn they remain surprised but still suspicious of all the attention. Pledges are one thing, but 'deliverables' are another. 'If he [Mr Bradley] can follow through on what he's proposing it would be wonderful,' helper Sarah Moore said outside the Concord Baptist Church as Mr Bradley spoke. 'If this is just another campaign spiel, well, follow the crowd.' Others say the poverty pledges are an indication of wider disenchantment in the electorate with the so-called boom. Many ordinary Americans are now working more hours than ever before and spending less time with their children as economic growth masks a credit-fuelled rat-race of unprecedented proportions. 'Americans are learning the hard way that economic growth is not everything . . . that is making this poverty thing appealing. There is great disenchantment out there,' a Democratic strategist said. The focus on poverty is coming from candidates in the most expensive election race ever. Mr Bush's war chest now tops US$60 million. The irony is compounded by the fact that, for the first time, all major candidates were born to wealthy families. 'I don't believe any of it,' said Jarvis Haester, 65, one of Washington's homeless, as he huddled against the cold on Pennsylvania Avenue, just 500 metres from the White House. 'It is a game to these fat cats. I'll die on these streets and so will my friends before there is change. America's a great place - if you have money.'