HOW AMERICAN NEGLECTS ITS POOR
Invisible Americans Get the Silent Treatment
By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company
It's just astonishing to us how long this campaign has gone on with no
discussion of what's happening to poor people. Official Washington
continues to see poverty with tunnel vision - "out of sight, out of mind."
And we're not speaking just of Paul Ryan and his Draconian budget plan
or Mitt Romney and their fellow Republicans. Tipping their hats to
America's impoverished while themselves seeking handouts from
billionaires and corporations is a bad habit that includes President
Obama, who of all people should know better.
Remember: for three years in the 1980's he was a community organizer in
Roseland, one of the worst, most poverty-stricken and despair-driven
neighborhoods in Chicago. He called it "the best education I ever had."
And when Obama left to go to Harvard Law School, author Paul Tough
writes in The New York Times, he did so, "to gain the knowledge and
resources that would allow him to eventually return and tackle the
neighborhood's problems anew." There's a moving line in Dreams from My
Father where Obama writes: "I would learn power's currency in all its
intricacy and detail" and "bring it back like Promethean fire."
Oddly, though, for all his rhetorical skills, Obama hasn't made a single
speech devoted to poverty since he moved into the White House.
Five years ago, he was one of the few politicians who would talk about
it. Here he is in July 2007, speaking in Anacostia, one of the poorest
parts of Washington, D.C.:
"The moral question about poverty in America - How can a country like
this allow it? - has an easy answer: we can't. The political question
that follows - What do we do about it? - has always been more difficult.
But now that we're finally seeing the beginnings of an answer, this
country has an obligation to keep trying."
Barack Obama the candidate said he wanted to spend billions on a
nationwide program similar to Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone in
New York City, widely praised for its focus on comprehensive child
development. In the last three years, only $40 million have been spent
with another $60 million scheduled for local community grants.
Obama's White House team insisted their intentions were good, but the
depth of the economic meltdown passed along by their predecessors has
kept them from doing more. And yes, billions have been spent on direct
aid to families in the form of welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers
and other payments. What's needed, as Paul Tough at the Times and others
say, is a less scattershot, more comprehensive program that gets to the
root of the problem, focusing on education and mentoring. Not easy to do
when a disaffected middle class that votes says hey, what about us? -
and the wealthy one percent who lay out the fat campaign contributions
simply say, so what?
Just a few days ago, The Chronicle of Philanthropy issued a report on
charitable giving. Among its findings: "Rich people who live in
neighborhoods with many other wealthy people give a smaller share of
their incomes to charity than rich people who live in more economically
diverse communities." Responding to that study, social psychologist Paul
Piff told National Public Radio, "The more wealth you have, the more
focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less
attuned to the needs of other people you also become."
Those few who dedicate themselves to keeping the poor ever in sight
realize how grave the situation really is. The Associated Press reports
that, "The number of Americans with incomes at or below 125 percent of
the poverty level is expected to reach an all-time high of 66 million
this year." A family of four earning 125 percent of the federal poverty
level makes about $28,800 a year, according to government figures.
That number's important because 125 percent is the income limit to
qualify for legal aid, but although that family may qualify for help,
budgets for legal services have been slashed, too, and pro bono work at
the big law firms has fallen victim to downsizing. So it's not
surprising, the AP goes on to say, that there's a crisis in America's
civil courts because people slammed by the financial meltdown -
overwhelmed by foreclosure, debt collection and bankruptcy cases - can't
afford legal representation and have to represent themselves, creating
gridlock in our justice system - and one more hammer blow for the poor.
We know, we know: It is written that, "The poor will always be with us."
But when it comes to our "out of sight, out of mind" population of the
poor, you have to think we can help reduce their number, ease the
suffering, and speak out, with whatever means at hand, on their behalf
and against those who would prefer they remain invisible. Speak out:
that means you and me, and yes, Mr. President, you, too. You once told
the big bankers on Wall Street that you were all that stood between them
and the pitchforks of an angry public. How about telling the poor you
will make sure our government stands between them and the cliff?
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