America Doesn't Care About Poor People

"I jus' want somethin' to eat" is a plea you get used to hearing in Hyde Park, Chicago, usually accompanied by an outstretched hand and eyes that are surprisingly self-assured -- even assertive -- for someone who depends upon strangers for sustenance. The typical University of Chicago student -- white, wealthy, and professedly liberal -- will do one of two things: either stop to hand him some change or, in an overwhelming majority of the time, pretend not to see him.

Something interesting happens when the road less traveled is taken, however; the man accepts the change, usually with a sincere expression of gratitude, and walks away. The student, meanwhile, leaves with a feeling that is more pronounced than indifference, yet less self-righteous than outright pride. It is a sentiment that can more or less be summed up by a defeated sigh; yes, the world may be a horrible place, but I don't have to buy into it.

A week after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I (along with thousands of others in the blogosphere, I'm sure) chided Barbara Bush for a particularly uncouth choice of words she used to describe her visit to the Astrodome, where many of the evacuees who ended up in Houston were being housed. In a column for my high school newspaper, I wrote:

After surveying the conditions inside the Reliant Astrodome, former First Lady Barbara Bush made this puzzling remark: "Many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." Bush, who once vented to Diane Sawyer, "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It's not relevant. Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?" when asked about her son's war in Iraq, also shared her concern that some of the storm refugees might want to stay in Texas for good -- "which is sort of scary," she says. Well, allow me to put Barbara's beautiful mind at ease.

Two years later, I am sad to say that Barbara Bush was right. Far from being "puzzling," her remark -- as devoid of taste and compassion as it was -- also happened to be dead-on. Many of the people in the Astrodome were "underprivileged;" in fact, many of the people in New Orleans were "underprivileged." Before Hurricane Katrina, nearly one out of every four families in New Orleans lived below the poverty line. In a city with no light rail or subway system to speak of, nearly 30 percent of New Orleans' homes did not have a car. In other words, a disaster existed long before a disaster hit.

Mrs. Bush's most controversial assertion was that things were "working very well" for the evacuees. After all, being forced out of your home and potentially losing your loved ones is hardly an image that one would associate with things working well (the Bush administration notwithstanding). But Mrs. Bush was on to something in her observation that poor people were being treated differently in the Astrodome, post-Katrina, than they had been treated in New Orleans, pre-Katrina. For a few days in September, they were being cared for.

It's funny, in a country that Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco, Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, and George W. Bush all call home, Kanye West -- of all people -- managed to elicit a public outcry when he said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Well, he was partly right. America's worst-kept secret is that it doesn't care about poor people. No, not that it doesn't do enough to help (it tries), or that it doesn't at least claim to be concerned (it does) ... no, America literally does not care about poor people. In the same way that most Americans do not care about soccer or Kevin Federline.

It hurts me to say this, because I know that this sentiment is generally not shared among the Americans (and non-Americans) who I am fortunate enough to know. Two years ago, I wrote:

And to this day, I squirm at the praise lauded upon our country for our resolve and our fortitude in the face of such adversities. Individual heroes -- the countless, nameless, faceless men and women who work tirelessly to give our evacuees a temporary home complete with cots and clothes and food supplies, or, in remoter regions of the world, devote their lives to improving the well-being of others -- they deserve our revering attention, our unbridled adulation. But we, as a nation, are quite simply and patently not there yet.

My feelings today are largely unchanged. In our public consciousness, poor people exist only to feed the notion that, if they scratch and claw hard enough, they might one day be able to join the coveted ranks of the American middle class. Our society reveres and elevates the rich and powerful; even when we make fun of them, we do not disparage their wealth or power but simply what they choose to do with it. We are so fixated on looking longingly upwards that we do not see the people we have trampled upon underneath. (My lower-middle class upbringing, for example, taught me little about the way people lived just a stratum below me, but a great deal about the class that I was one day supposed to infiltrate.)

The problem is, of course, that this all comes at a time when incomes are rising and, technically, we're all getting wealthier; our collective well-being over the past few decades has skyrocketed. Even television shows that depict characters in the most desperate of situations -- say, a show about an airplane that has crashed onto a deserted island and the survivors are left to fend for themselves -- are filled with urban professionals who must adjust to a strange new lifestyle of scarcity. Otherwise, we continue to gorge ourselves on stories about celebrities with too much disposable income, or doctors with too much disposable income, or my personal favorite -- Dirty Sexy Money, a new show coming this fall about Manhattanites with too much disposable income -- in a country where 40 million people do not have health insurance.

We make fun of the rich, yes, but we crucify the poor. We do not like hearing about them; we do not like seeing them; we do not like thinking about them in terms of anything other than their supposed failure to achieve America's promise of social mobility. Different standards for different people; and let the damned be damned. In this context, the warm feeling that came from knowing that, thanks to you, someone has food in his stomach for another evening takes on a slightly demented tone when you reach for your third bag of Fritos in your quest to pull off yet another all-nighter, doesn't it?

You see, that's the hideous truth that Katrina was brazen enough to reveal to us two years ago, and still, we have done nothing to decelerate the ever-widening chasm between the American poor and the American mainstream. Why should we, when even idealistic young college students are growing increasingly content in pretending that they don't see a problem? Katrina was not strong enough to cause the crisis of American poverty to come to a head... so what will be?