The isolated other America

September 12, 2005|By Scott A. Bass and Elyse E. Jacob

THE LACK OF preparedness, disinvestments in infrastructure, poor planning, degradation of the wetlands that historically helped protect New Orleans and the number of urban poor were consequences of shortsighted decisions from Democrats and Republicans alike.

More than 40 years ago, Michael Harrington first wrote about the poverty and squalor that infected urban America in The Other America: Poverty in the United States. We later fought a war on poverty and created a variety of safety net programs intended to lift generations of young people out of poverty.

But lurking in the shadows of America is another America. With time and the spread of suburbs and highways, the urban ghettos disappeared from the public eye.

Not eradicated, but isolated, these neighborhoods continued with generations of poor families struggling to survive in a world of inadequate resources in a culture of drugs and violence. Toxic lead paint chips still are eaten by children in our older cities, a problem that could be eliminated if we choose.

Many of the hardest-hit victims of Katrina were poor, old and frail. Even if they could have evacuated before the storm, many didn't have cars, gas, or safe places to go. Some were too sick to leave. They were the invisible people in almost every city of America that our commuter arteries allow us to bypass and, with the exception of the occasional homeless beggar, remain out of sight of the upscale residents associated with the gentrified urban resurgence.

But the poor are there. One in every four people in New Orleans is below the poverty line, and this does not include those who are poor but not officially classified as below the poverty line. That line last year for a family of four was $19,307. This reality also holds for older cities along the Atlantic seaboard and vulnerable to natural disasters such as Philadelphia, Miami and Baltimore. The percentage of those living in poverty in these cities pales in comparison to the number found in cities such as Detroit, where one in three residents lives in poverty.

Katrina blew away the shroud and uncovered the poor whom both parties have long ignored, and the nation was horrified at what they saw and how they were treated. They also saw politicians concerned with short-term gains and protecting their pet industries, resulting in decades of policy decisions that left ordinary citizens inadequately protected.

Our 20-year-old son tells us that the majority of the members of Congress are there to serve those who have the money to get them elected, not others who can't make campaign contributions. Too many of the poor believe this and some, like our son, have stopped voting. For them, it doesn't matter who is in office. All the talk of homeland security makes little difference to those who live in neighborhoods where bullets fly by their children every day.

In the world's richest nation, 45.8 million people are without health insurance and 37 million people are in poverty. For those ages 18 to 64, the percentage of the nation in poverty is hardly different than it was when Mr. Harrington wrote his classic book. For those 65 and older, however, Social Security has helped make an enormous difference, shifting the poverty rate for this group from 30 percent to 9.8 percent. Yet this program is now under attack.

We have rolled back taxes to a point where we cannot adequately fund programs that provide quality education, housing, transportation and health care for the poor. Public transportation appears to be nonexistent compared to what is commonplace in Europe. Security is too often defined in military terms rather than health, public safety and the economy. Important U.S. public health outcomes trail other developed nations. And we have become a nation of debt supporting a war and tax cuts that result in an unbalanced fiscal house.

Consequently, our son is angry at the legacy of debt left for his generation to manage and the inadequate use of federal funds to really serve our nation's health, welfare, security and safety. For our son, Katrina is a symbol of the unpreparedness that the executive and legislative branches have left the nation in so many sectors.

It is time for our elected officials to remember that it is the public that they are to serve, the majority of the nation. They serve not just those who vote, or those with the loudest voices, or those whose opinions you like, or those with the most organized campaigns or those with the deepest pockets.

We are one great nation, and we need to identify public servants willing to stand up for those who are most vulnerable. By protecting our environment, mitigating our dependence on oil, supporting public transit, fighting global warming, spending for important infrastructure costs, funding education and creating health care for all, we can get our son and countless others returning to the ballot box and sharing in a democratic process that has worked to the advantage of a select few.

Scott A. Bass, a professor of sociology and public policy, is vice president of research and dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Elyse E. Jacob is former director of research at the Center for Poverty Solutions.

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