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Bringing Poverty To The Table


(Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.  Read the accompanying text with the heartbreaking photos here, please.  And have a glimpse of one tiny sliver of poverty in America.  And then, take a moment to imagine being this little girl, with this family, and all of its attendant problems — none of which she asked for in any way by simply being born — and then think about just how many other children are living this life in America this morning.)

John Edwards entered the race (video of the announcement at this link) for the Presidency yesterday, in an announcement made from New Orleans lower ninth ward, with a discussion of poverty and citizen action on the issues involved as the centerpiece of his announcement.  And I, for one, could not be happier that he chose to push those issues to the forefront of American political discussion — because it is past time that we all started having the necessary conversations on these issues.  

The WSJ, of all places, had a profile of Edwards' message and work on poverty that highlighted well his call to action and the "two Americas" that he spoke about so eloquently in the last Presidential campaign cycle and, on which, he has been working since 2004:

Those cheering on Mr. Edwards's antipoverty crusade include party strategist Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in his 2000 presidency bid. Recalling Mr. Edwards's past emphasis on the "Two Americas" theme, she says: "In 2004, that message went largely unheard. To his credit, he kept at it. And Katrina demonstrated the validity of that message."

Ms. Brazile is admittedly biased toward the message if not the messenger. (She says she will remain neutral in the Democrats' 2008 contest.) A native of New Orleans, she visited her father in the city this week for the holidays. Seven siblings and her extended family were among those displaced to other parts of Louisiana and seven other states, and like tens of thousands, they continue to struggle 16 months after Katrina to rebuild lives, careers and wrecked houses, she says.

Mr. Edwards plans to officially announce his 2008 candidacy to reporters today during a break on reconstruction work in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans's most impoverished and hard-hit neighborhood. He is there with college volunteers he has mobilized. Earlier this year, Mr. Edwards labored in nearby St. Bernard Parish with nearly 700 student supporters who were on spring break from colleges in 27 states.

Yet as Mr. Edwards has suggested in speeches, his antipoverty theme is broader than helping Katrina's victims. He speaks of "the forgotten middle class" and of workers generally, who have seen their wages stagnate and benefits erode.

One of the things that has infuriated me most since the Reagan era transformed political discourse in this nation into sound bites and PR manipulations is the need that conservatives have to demonize and dismiss America's poor as if they were all a bunch of lazy bums who never lifted a finger in their lives.  That kind of idiotic misunderstanding of the lives of most folks who live below the poverty line in America can only come from folks who haven't ever really been poor — or known anyone who was, other than the folks who work for them about whose lives they never bother to inquire. 

The decided lack of empathy or real understanding is further complicated by liberal politicians who are so busy running over to join the "beat on the poor" fray, because there is some sort of concensus that formed at some point that big money donors don't want to hear about a topic this depressing anyway.  Or that "voters" don't want to be talked to as if they were adults — but merely want to hear happy news all the time. 

But they could not be more wrong.

Here's a thought for all the "look the other way" politicians and political operatives:  the violent crime rate is rising in America again, and Katrina should have been a big ole warning shot across the policy bow for all of you that failing to address issues of poverty creates a whole host of problems for local, state and federal officials alike — and for the nation as a whole. 

You think you can hide out in your happy little gated community and that the messy issues of poverty and despair won't touch your pristine lives?  Think again. 

Poor children attend schools in your neighborhood.  They clog your court system as abused and neglected children, then as juveniles, and on into adulthood, and then back again as parents who failed to learn how to adequately care for their children because they had no examples in their own lives of how things might be done in a better way.  Your tax dollars pay for all of this.  You think it is cheaper to keep warehousing adult criminals instead of dealing with the root problem when children are young?  Nope.  Do we change how we do things — make things more efficient and put the effort into the early stage of life where it would allow us to really reap a cost-effective and lifetime benefit for an at-risk child?  Nope.

And you think that real people living in America outside the realm of gated McMansions don't have a very clear understanding of the impact of poverty and despair and racial tension and all of the other associated issues that surround poverty in this country?  Think again.

The common wisdom is that poor folks and children do not vote.  And that the rest of the country does not care enough about them to vote their interests.  Well, I am here to tell you this morning that THEIR interests ought to be ALL of our interests.  Because their costs to society fall on every single person who pays taxes — and, honestly, as much as folks on the right bitch about taxes, shouldn't they be the least bit interested in maximizing the returns on the money they do pay in — and reducing the overall needs and despair in order to reduce long term costs ought to be something everyone could get behind. 

You'd think so, anyway, wouldn't you.

I attended a symposium on poverty, inequality, race and the media sponsored by the Eisenhower Foundation on December 12th.  It was an amazing discussion, one that brought out some difficult but necessary points about the way these issues have been covered in the media over the last forty-odd years since the Kerner Commission report

And the decisions made in newsrooms on this sort of coverage mirror, in large and small ways, the way that politicians also deal with these issues.   In many ways, for both corporate-owned media and politicians, dealing with poverty is a question of marketing:  on both sides of the coin, the folks making the decisions think that "poverty" doesn't sell well, and so it gets swept to the side. 

In print media, the stories get shoved to a single column on page A17.  Television media covers them with decreasing frequency, sandwiched between infotainment bits on Britney Spears' panties, or lack thereof, and the latest celebrity DUI arrest photo.  Folks in politics equally don't want to talk publicly about these issues with much frequency, because they feel that it doesn't make for much good news footage — it's not soundbite friendly and, in any case, newsrooms don't want to cover these issues anyway because advertisers don't think "poverty" and "product sales" go well together.

I will talk more about the symposium in a subsequent post later this morning, but I wanted to touch on something from my remarks there that, I think, illustrates just how much can be involved in the issues surrounding poverty — and why it is essential that we look at the whole of the problem, not just tiny little pieces of it.

I spent my professional life working with at risk children in abusive and neglectful homes, or who had violent tendencies that grew out of any number of problems — home life, sexual abuse, mental issues stemming from drug or alcohol use while the child was in the womb, you name it — that landed them in the juvenile system.  The issues involved could be overwhelming at times, and included, but were not limited to the following (from my speech to the group):

And in an abuse and neglect case, I would see the following pretty frequently:

– Mental health issues that had gone untreated for years
– Parenting skills counseling
– Drug and alcohol rehab
– Anger management counseling
– Sex abuse therapy – individual and group, for both the perpetrator and the survivor
– Foster care
– Medical intervention
– Criminal charges
– Job training needs
– Government benefits sign-up
– Medical cards for kids who had never had adequate care
– Budgeting skills classes
– Life skills classes (including things like why you should clean your house, why bathing is important, hygiene basics, etc.)
– Intervention services to assist the mentally challenged parents and children
– Medicare benefits problems
– Disability and Workers Comp benefits problems
– Social worker rotation through long-term cases because social workers are paid next to nothing to do one of the hardest jobs on the planet.
– Cuts in education benefits for Head Start and valuable early intervention programs like Birth to Three.
– Lack of prenatal care and awareness.
– Even more drug and alcohol rehab.
– Prison time for one or more parents.

And on and on.

That does not even touch on folks living below the poverty line who were never in trouble with the law. Folks who are working two and three jobs, trying to raise their families with no childcare assistance and little to no safety net. Folks for whom an illness could mean financial catastrophe for the whole family. Folks living one paycheck away from homelessness.

Take a look again at the WSJ piece on the Edwards' announcement, and look at the accompanying graphic on the rateof poverty and the costs of healthcare, just as one comparison point.  See how the graphs dip downward toward the year 2000, and then ratchet back up again throughout the Bush years in office?  Think that's a coincidence?  Me, neither.

That it has taken a Presidential candidate standing up and talking about this issue to get it back on the front pages of newspapers — at least for the day yesterday — is unconscionable.  But at least people are talking about it again, and for that I applaud John Edwards for sticking to a topic that all of us need to be talking about much more frequently.  More on why that is in the next segment…

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Bringing Poverty To The Table, Part II

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com