America’s Poor: Invisible Men & Women

Prior to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination he was planning another significant event on the Mall of the Nation’s Capital. The Poor People’s March was to be the beginning of an aggressive push by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to turn its focus from the injustices under Jim Crow – most of which was addressed in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – to the unfairness of economic inequality. The Poor People’s March was suppose to be a turn toward the issue of class and the institutionalized soft caste system of America’s capitalistic society.

While the march went on despite it’s leaders unfortunate absence, it’s impact was limited. It did however re-energize Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. However, since his speech in 1964, poverty continues to plague American society. Today, more than 37 million people are in poverty. Since President Bush has been in office the poverty rate has risen steadily from 10.4% to 12.7%. Why? The simple solution can be answered in a quote by President Ronald Reagan 20 years ago: “We fought the War on Poverty and Poverty Won.”

The casualties of America’s defeat can be seen daily on the broadcast and cable news in the form of Hurricane Katrina’s victims. New Orleans is a segregated, impoverished city. Despite its reputation for fun and partying – many of its residents cannot enjoy the good times.

Surprisingly, today’s media has rediscovered America’s poor and the national conversation has now turned to issues of race and poverty and class. But why now? Isn’t it logical that the nearly quarter of New Orleans’ residents were poor and disenfranchised before Katrina. Why, in the midst of the stories about jazz and creole foods, didn’t those stories make the evening news?

Essentially, it can be summed up in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson Ellison. In his most profound book he writes: “I am an invisible man…that invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eye.”

Throughout his novel, Ellison explores the construction of this inner eye and illustrates how despite all the effort to be seen and more importantly heard, many in this society are looked past and far worse, looked through as if they were invisible.

In short the poor have always been here; always struggling to survive; always finding some way to live – yet they have gone undetected and uncared for and invisible.

Even today, despite all the coverage – most who could do something about this ailment only see a silhouette and have yet to discover a real person beyond the shadows.

That fact is seen in the current debate over how to pay for the reconstruction and salvage of people’s lives. Most estimates place the funding of this enormous effort at $200 billion dollars. For a country, which is already in $400 billion dollars in debt and seeking to continually pay for the war in Iraq and activities in Afghanistan the problem of how to pay for this renewal becomes a problem. America’s life line is already held by England, Saudi Arabia, Japan, China and South Korea. Each of them hold huge IOUs due to the United States constant borrowing.

But Congress has yet to decide to make the tough choices. According to them it is not yet time for America’s richest 1% to help pay their part. When asked recently if Congress should retract President Bush’s $1.35 trillion dollar tax cut package, Senator David Vitter (R) Louisiana said he did not favor such thoughts.

In the face of tremendous debt and the reality of terrible poverty, it’s not time for those making more than $200,00 a year to give back to the greater good?

It’s not a surprise the Republican-controlled Congress can’t dare ask America’s rich to part with its precious tax cuts – the War in Iraq didn’t result in that request either.

Nor will it be any more surpising that Congress will make its members sacrifice, as well. The highway bill the President signed last month totalled $286 billion dollars. While there are many well thought projects – 6,000 programs are considered fat – one, a bridge in Alaska that ends at the end of an iceberg. Certainly there’s billions there that can be saved. Then, there is the faulty prescription drug plan which is so confusing that most states have no idea how to implement it. A delay in that initiative for a year could save $40 billion dollars.

The bottomline is Congress will refuse to make the hard choices and tighten its belt. It seems the sad truth of the matter is America’s poor will continue to live on the outskirts of society’s consciousness and unfortunately continue to be invsible – but not because of an inner eye but inner greed.

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