No, really, we can't stand poor people.
We pass by them on downtown street corners as if they weren't really there. We price them out of our "new" neighborhoods--also known as their "old" neighborhoods--with little remorse. We don't drive or ride public transportation through poor parts of town. We shun stores when too many poor folks start shopping there. In other words, we don't want to talk with them, live with them, travel with them or even shop with them.
We often ignore the poor. Think of all the talk you've heard about poverty during this year's historic presidential campaign. Think hard.
Can't remember any substantive debate on the topic? That's because it didn't happen, which is ironic considering the campaign's emphasis on our nation's economic crisis.
Amid all of the talk about bailouts, stimulus packages and mortgage relief plans, nobody is talking about the folks in need of an economic lifeline more than any of us. During the four presidential and vice-presidential debates this year--where, in all, more than 60,000 words were spoken--the word "poverty" was never mentioned. The words "low income" and "the poor" were each mentioned just once--but not in a direct question or response about poor people.
However, the "middle class"--the darling segment of America in this year's campaign--was mentioned 28 times during the debates. "Main Street"--a veiled reference to the middle class--was mentioned an additional nine times.
Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden described the middle class as America's economic engine and talked about how we needed to get the middle class "back on track." Gov. Sarah Palin identified herself as a "Mainstreeter" and said her family was among America's middle class. Sen. John McCain fell in love with Joe the Plumber and proclaimed that we were all like Joe.
But no one has stood up so prominently for the millions of Americans who would gladly switch places with Joe.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 38 million Americans living in poverty in 2007. If America's poor all lived in one state, that poor state would be the nation's largest. California's estimated population in 2007 was about 36.6 million. I can't imagine a presidential campaign that didn't make a stop in California. So why has this campaign never visited Skid Row? If we can talk about helping the middle-class in these tough economic times, why can't we talk about helping the poor?
Apparently, talking about helping the poor has become some kind of political kiss of death evidenced by the monumental policy shifts in social programs the past dozen years or so, counting everything from the reform of welfare to the demolition of public housing.
It seems that our "War on Poverty" has become a war on the poor.
It should be noted that this year's presidential campaign has focused on providing health care, tax relief and more jobs--things that would certainly help the poor. But no one dared to utter a direct call to aid America's poorest citizens the way we've heard that call for the middle class.
Poor people aren't poor simply because they don't try hard enough. And middle-class folks aren't struggling right now just because the economy tanked. If the poor can be held accountable for their economic situation, so should the middle class. And if America is a better place with a strong middle class, it would be an even better place if the poor were able to join the ranks of the middle class.
Skills, circumstances and opportunities are often the difference between the poor, the working class and the middle class--not desire and effort.
Just 65 percent of impoverished adults at least 25 years old had high school diplomas in 2007; compared to 87 percent of their counterparts above the poverty line. While middle-class America is feeling the pinch from the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost, the unemployment rate of impoverished Americans was nearly 24 percent in 2007--nearly four times the rate for the rest of Americans.
Anyone who believes the poor don't try hard enough hasn't seen the guys on Chicago street corners in sub-zero weather selling everything from Streetwise to socks to dashboard ornaments. They haven't talked to ex-felons who've filled out more than 40 job applications--and keep going despite receiving rejection after rejection. Single moms raising a family on a minimum wage-income may be the hardest-working people in America--but no one ever talks about them that way.
I don't think it's the poor who've given up on making a better life for themselves. I think it's that the rest of us have given up on the poor.