Poverty in America: The Problems and Solutions

The first time I visited Mexico City, I was twenty years old and we drove into town via hillsides of cardboard houses, slums and trash dumps with people scouring through them for whatever they could find. My American companion seemed shocked by the poverty. The poverty did not shock me at all. I asked, "Haven't you ever been to North Louisiana?" Or rural North Carolina, a Native American reservation in many US states (pre-casinos), downtown LA? Poverty in the developing world does not shock me. Poverty in America does.

Many people both in the US and abroad truly saw real poverty in America for the first time with hurricane Katrina. The winds and water ripped away any kind of façade which allowed us to remain in denial. My father made sure we knew what poverty looked like as I grew up in the South. The area of Louisiana, outside of Shreveport, where his parents still lived back then, was beyond poor. It seemed to get worse each year. There seemed to be no infrastructure, and drugs and teen motherhood were the norm. The Old South of fine schools, churches and a social structure which seemed to function for parts of the population (separately and not equally) became frayed.

Check cashing companies, Western Union and payday loans all add to the misery of the poor as they are ripped off by usurious fees, losing up to 30% of what they earn. And these people are already not earning that much! Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus is working to make these kind of abuses obsolete. These kinds of costs can be brought down to zero in the next decade. We can learn from the way other countries are doing things, bringing down costs for the poor, making their lives better, providing opportunities for small businesses which truly serve their communities and keep the profits local, not paid to some conglomerate far away.

We need to make communities strong again. Our local money does not need to be mixed in with some guy's hedge fund abstract tranche of nothing all to make a fee for some banker in New York. Keep money and banking local. Lend and deposit locally. Rebuild the trust and the human connections in banking. Small loans and banks such as Muhammad Yunus' Grameen replication microlending programs are beginning to work in America, in Queens and soon elsewhere. Communities know what they need. It is not more welfare or school vouchers... but jobs, programs which work in schools and for young people. Good public transportation and job training, learning how to be resourceful and make things again, self-sufficiency, and a deep respect for learning need to be privileged more than what television and advertising put out there.

At one African American church a few years ago, near my grandparents' home, not far from Caddo Lake, what was left of an older generation's attempt to keep pride and respect together in their community in what was a wasteland and lack of opportunity, was not lost on me. But what would happen when this older generation died off? The elders in the church who dressed in their Sunday best, who took care of their grandchildren, and tried to hold it all together for the youth would soon all be gone. Who amongst the young could remember better times? What hope could they have for a future surrounded by such poverty? Who would be the role models in the future which would help provide a way out of this reality?

The poor white population was not much better off. Fundamentalist churches had taken hold, and those who were not woven into the fabric of the speaking in tongues extremism, turned in on themselves. The lone Democrat I met, a teacher, did her best. But the reality was that one of the few ways out of the poverty was by joining the military. And that meant Iraq, and possible mutilation or death. The teen moms I worked with in the Pacific Northwest knew yet another kind of poverty. They had all been homeless. Some had tried to escape from violent boyfriends who used drugs or were in gangs. There was no public transportation, no child care for them so they could attend school or job training, no way to better their lives without the structure of a non-profit. Schools, child care and transportation should be the basics a society helps provide for, not "extras". No one should miss out of learning simply because he or she cannot afford to buy the books for school!

But now there is hope. Obama could very well be elected. There would be a role model for many people, the son of a single mother, a black man, someone who cares about education and knows that this kind of poverty is real. He wants to make our support system strong again, and not leave anyone out. But many of the white poor will not vote for him. They see themselves in Palin, and her small town Alaska existence. But she is not about them. McCain is not about these people. It is Clinton v. Bush again. Clinton knows poverty, he has seen it all his life and though he was able to make the best of his life with good schools and a support structure, he never forgot the poor. Obama will not forget the poor. McCain and his wife live in a world which is cut off from how most people live. Palin does not exemplify fighting against the good ole boy system... she is the good ole boy system, in drag!

Turn off the tv. Teach children around you a skill. Pass on your knowledge. Show a single mom how to shop for healthy food and make a real meal. Volunteer with a school program. Show children how to enjoy some of what our country has which is free: a park, a museum, a library, not just a shopping mall/entertainment center where denial reigns. Help them to see the beauty in their world, and how they can be part of taking back America. If one good thing comes out of this financial crisis, perhaps it can be communities and people coming together again. A Native American saying I saw written on a t-shirt at a May day parade in Minneapolis many years ago summed it up best, "I am Another Yourself".

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