An ugly symptom of the poverty problem

September 04, 2005|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

TWO THINGS happened in one week that tell much about the abysmal failure of the Bush administration to get a handle on poverty in America.

The first was the tragic and disgraceful TV shots of hordes of New Orleans residents scurrying down the city's hurricane-ravaged streets with their arms loaded with food, clothes, appliances and, in some cases, guns that they looted from stores.

Earlier last week, the Census Bureau released a report that found that the number of poor Americans has grown since President Bush took office in 2000.

While criminal gangs who always take advantage of chaos and misery to snatch and grab whatever they can did much of the looting, many desperately poor, mostly black residents saw a chance to grab items that they can't afford. They also did their share of the looting. That makes it no less reprehensible, but it's no surprise.

New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates of any of America's big cities. According to a report by Total Community Action, a New Orleans public advocacy group, nearly one out of three New Orleans residents lives below the poverty level, and the majority of them are black. An official from the United Negro College Fund noted that the city's poor live in some of the most dilapidated and deteriorated housing in the nation.

But New Orleans is not an aberration. Nationally, according to census figures, blacks remain at the bottom of the economic totem pole. They have the lowest median income of any group. Mr. Bush's war in Iraq and economic policies don't help. His tax cuts redistributed billions to the rich and corporations.

The war has drained billions from cash-starved job training, health and education programs. Increased U.S. dependence on Saudi oil has driven gas and oil prices skyward. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing and industrial flight have further fueled America's poverty crisis. The 2 million new jobs in 2004 that Mr. Bush touts as proof that his economic policies work have been mostly smoke-and-mirrors number-counting.

The bulk of these jobs are low-paying with minimal benefits and little job security in retail and service industries. A big portion of the nearly 40 million Americans who live below the official poverty line fill these jobs. They're the lucky ones. They have jobs. Many young blacks, such as those that ransacked stores in New Orleans, don't.

The poverty crisis has slammed them the hardest of all. Even during the Clinton era economic boom, the unemployment rate for young black males was double or even triple, in some parts of the country, that of white males.

During the past couple of years, state and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the brutal competition from immigrants for low- and semi-skilled service and retail jobs and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have further hammered black communities and added to the Depression-era high unemployment numbers among young blacks.

The tale of poverty is more evident in the nearly 1 million blacks behind bars, the HIV/AIDS rampage in black communities, the sea of black homeless people and the raging drug and gang violence that rips apart many black communities.

Then there are the children. One-third of America's poor are children. Worse, the Children's Defense Fund found that nearly 1 million black children live not just in poverty but in extreme poverty. That's the greatest number of black children trapped in dire poverty in nearly a quarter-century.

Bush officials claim the poverty numbers do not surprise them. They contend that past trends show that poverty peaks and then declines a year after the jump in new job growth. But the poverty numbers have steadily risen for not one but all five years of this administration. There has been no sign of a turnaround.

For that to happen, President Bush would have to reverse his tax and war-spending policies, commit massive funds to job training and education programs and provide tax incentives for businesses to train and hire the poor. That would take an active national lobbying effort by congressional Democrats and civil rights and anti-poverty groups. That's not likely, either. The poor are too nameless, faceless and vast in numbers to target with a sustained lobbying campaign.

While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hammers Mr. Bush on the war and his domestic policies, poverty has not been its top priority. The fight for affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals of all African-Americans. That effectively left the one out of four blacks who wallows below the official poverty level out in the cold.

The looting in New Orleans, though deplorable, put an ugly public face on a crisis that Bush administration policies have made worse. The millions in America who grow poorer, more desperate and greater in number are bitter testament to that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and social issues commentator, is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.

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